Simple strategies for getting them to ignore you less

So it’s your job to make something happen. Maybe you have a client deadline to meet. Maybe the initiative you’ve been charged to run has been languishing for weeks. Whatever it is, it seems you’re eternally waiting on information or input from your team. You feel like everyone’s ignoring you, and you’re increasingly pessimistic about getting your job done.

Theoretically, we can cause ourselves to take action in a timely manner. (Though if you’re a habitual procrastinator, that too may be a problem for you – but that’s a topic for another day.) But what happens when you need help from others to continue moving forward, and that help simply isn’t being provided?

The need to incite action by others presents its own set of superfun challenges. And while I have no magic or utterly foolproof solutions, I do have a few strategies worth trying:

  • Give a deadline for your request. Instead of saying, “Please send me your changes to the budget,” say “Please send me your changes to the budget before close-of-business Friday.” Whether there’s an actual internally or externally induced deadline for your project is not important. The unvarnished truth is that you’re more likely to get a response, period, if you’ve established a baseline expectation for when that response is required. Be realistic but strategic about setting your deadlines. For example, if you don’t need a response until three weeks from now, don’t give them only two days to respond. If they start regarding you as Chicken Little, you’re sunk.

  • Make inaction have consequences. “If I don’t hear back from you by 3pm tomorrow, I will assume the document is final and submit it to the client before 5pm.” “If I don’t receive any input or feedback before close-of-business on Tuesday 6/15, I will consider the proposed project timeline final and it will dictate our schedule going forward.” This approach gives them a chance to provide input – while giving you permission to act, whether or not they actually choose to respond.

  • Broadcast ownership and therefore accountability. As a project progresses, it’s helpful to make specifics of task ownership increasingly visible to the wider group. For example, when only a few days remained before a proposal needed to be finalized, I would start providing an exhaustive list of “open items” in each update I’d send to the team. Next to each line item would be the item owner’s name in bold print. As the final days progressed and open items were progressively closed out and deleted from my list, it would become fully apparent to everyone if people were failing to close out the items they were responsible for. Nobody enjoys having it made abundantly clear that they’re the ones being chumps and not doing what they’re supposed to. In addition, others with a stake in the projects’ success can clearly see who’s holding things up without you having to look or act like a tattle-tale. Finally, this approach shows the wider team that progress is being made with or without their involvement – sending the message that if they want to have their say, they’d better go ahead and have it.

  • Get on the phone. This one seems obvious, right? But – in this modern age of IMing, texting, emailing, and deliberate voicemailing-instead-of-really-calling (we’ve all done it) – simply picking up the phone and calling someone to have a two-way conversation about what’s needed, why, and when has become a sadly underused strategy for getting s*** done. On my pursuit team at EY, the valiant and resourceful Liz Smith was known for getting results with difficult teams. While she had many great strategies, one of the most effective was simply being unafraid to get on the phone and be direct about what she needed. Most often, she’d IM the person first, nicely cornering them and thereby avoiding the chance she'd be sent to voicemail: “Do you have five minutes for a quick call about the project?” If they claimed five minutes were currently unavailable, she’d pin them down for a time later that day.

  • Don’t be shy about using bold and/or color formatting to call attention to your fundamental ask. If you haven't noticed yet, I am particularly shameless about this. When I’m composing an important email designed to incite action, I ask myself: what is the central message, question, or expectation that I am trying to convey? And then – at minimum – I change whatever that is to bold text. I may even change the text to a different color (perhaps a nice blue?) to make it stand out further. Red, I try to reserve for the truly important or urgent bits. My point is, if you are feeling desperate to incite action by others, those others may be very good at only half-reading and half-comprehending whatever missives you are sending to them. So it’s best to make the crucial pieces hard to miss. Do you feel like your email looks like it was written by an elementary school teacher? Good. You’re probably on the right track.

If you truly want to get s*** done, waiting and hoping are not your best friends. Persistence, determination, and a bit of skillful prodding and expectation-setting – those are the pals that genuinely have your back.