Proactive communication: Five tips for following up

Isabelle’s manager wanted her to get better at proactive communication. She’s comfortable e-mailing people, but she has a hard time following up when people don’t respond. Timezone differences between team members in Singapore and in the US compound delays. She reached out to me for advice, and I suggested a few things that might help:

1. Clear, dated requests. When asking for help or a response through e-mail, specify a target date instead of leaving it open-ended, and give a reason for that date if possible. This makes it easier for people to prioritize working on your task. (Don’t always ask people to get back to you TODAY, though. It looks like you don’t plan well.)

2. Clear, dated responses and priorities. If you’re working with other people on some lower-priority tasks, those tasks might never be finished. Clarify the relative priority of a task with your manager: it might turn out to be higher-priority than you thought. If it really is a low-priority project, contact the people you need to collaborate with and get an estimate of when they might be able to work on their part of the project. Find out what other important projects they’re working on, too. This will allow you to:

  • give clearer reasons for delays (“We can only work on the report next week because we have to finish the keynote presentation this week”)
  • negotiate better solutions (“I can do that part of the presentation if you can do this part of the report”)
  • re-negotiate priorities with your manager (“Actually, this report is more important than adding animation to the presentation”), and
  • give you dates for following up (“John is working on the presentation now, but he promised to work on the report on Monday, and I’ll follow up with him then”).

3. Status reports. They’re good for your manager and for you. Keep track of where you are on projects: what your next actions are, what you’re waiting for, and what you’ve accomplished. Share this with your manager frequently, so there are no surprises.

4. Concrete follow-ups. When you’re waiting for a response, schedule a follow-up so that it doesn’t slip through the cracks. Follow up by e-mail, and then move up to following up by phone or instant message if needed. I don’t do this for all of my tasks, but I do this for tasks I “own,” and it helps.

Concrete follow-up dates also help you write better status reports. Instead of reporting “Waiting for response”, you can report “Waiting for response; will follow up on ____ by e-mail and _____ by phone.” Clear follow-up plans make people feel more confident that the task won’t be forgotten.

5. Tactful escalation. When people don’t respond, sometimes you need to find other ways to get things going. Isabelle had learned how to cc:ing her manager so that her manager could stay updated, but she wasn’t comfortable with cc:ing the other person’s manager because it felt like escalation. If done tactfully, though, escalation can be a good tool.

How to escalate: Give people the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledge that they might be busy working on priority projects. Send them a gentle reminder, cc:ing their manager. In the note, explain to the manager that you understand that the original contact may be busy or your request might be a better fit for someone on the team, and ask who might be the best person to talk to.

Hope that helps!

2010-08-24 Tue 10:20

  • Raymond Zeitler

    Great advice. About #5, I’ve had managers request a cc every time I’d e-mail their subordinates. They don’t want someone on their team who lets things slip. And it helps the managers plan the work.

  • Sacha Chua

    Absolutely! A comment on my internal blog shared a similar insight – if you see managers as people who can help with resource allocation, it makes perfect sense to reach out to them when you might be dealing with someone who’s overloaded. It’s not about getting the other person into trouble, it’s about helping the team work more effectively.