Communication Responsiveness and the Sound of Silence
What you don’t say and how long it takes you to say what you do say sends a message. This article focuses on responsiveness, particularly to emails and voice messages, and how it affects communication and project success.
Communication is a critical part of project management and business analysis. In fact, it is a critical part of living with other people in any context. Our projects involve many people playing many roles in diverse organizations. Keeping everyone informed and getting the information needed to make the decisions that drive the project requires well-structured and clear communications. A communication plan is an essential part of any project plan.
Communication plans cover the nuts and bolts of communication – stakeholder roles and information needs, reporting schedules, meetings, report and agenda contents, responsibilities, methods, and media, etc. What they often do not address are the more subtle aspects, things like demeanor, tone of voice, response time expectations, guidelines for what to put in writing and other of the more subjective and qualitative aspects of communications.
The words we say and the body language we display sends a message. Much is written about how more of our meaning is transmitted by our body language than by our words in interpersonal communication. In a similar way, our silence and the time we take to respond also have meaning.
Responsiveness – No News is Not Good News – It is No News
What is a person saying who fails to respond to emails and phone messages in a timely manner? What is the message when a key subject matter expert fails to respond to work session invitations because they want to have their options open in case something important comes up? What is your reaction to slow or no response? How do you deal with the situation?
We are on all sides of communication. We are senders, receivers, and responders. As responders, while there may be unconscious reasons, we know why we fail to make a timely response. We might be too busy, not know what to say or how to say it. We might consider the topic unimportant and prioritize it below the other emails and voice messages we have to read and answer. We might even consider the sender to be unimportant. On a more subtle level, there may be a lack of social sensitivity that leads to not caring about the person who has sent the message and who is expecting a response. There may be a lack of understanding of the importance of our response and its impact on project schedules and personal relationships. Sometimes, the in-box is so full and the flow of mail so heavy that triage is needed just to stay afloat. That means that the unimportant messages can stay on the bottom of the pile indefinitely.
When we are waiting for a response, we can only guess at the reason for the delay. The guess is based on our knowledge of the other party, our feelings and our projections. We might think “that guy is ignoring me on purpose because he either doesn’t like me or doesn’t consider me important.” Just as possible is a thought like, “I guess the guy is overwhelmed with work and will get back to me when he can,” or “maybe he’s sick.” None of these reasons may be correct. We don’t know why a person fails to respond; only he or she does.
We also don’t necessarily know whether the other person’s understanding of what timely response means is the same as our understanding. In one organizational culture a week between receipt of a message and response may be perfectly acceptable or even considered to be quick. In another culture, more than 24 hours may be considered to be too slow. In yet another, an hour may be too long.
Based on an assessment of the reasons for slow or no response, relationships may suffer. We may lose respect for the other person, get angry, retaliate, escalate unskillfully or simply stop communicating with them.
The Project May Suffer
As a result of slow or no response, a project or business process may suffer. Customers and internal partners may feel ignored and ill served. Decisions may be delayed and that may have a ripple effect that delays the entire project or causes the organization to miss opportunities. For example, if an email that asks for approval for the hiring of a candidate for a team position goes unanswered for a week or more, the selected candidate may be lost to another firm or project. If an email inviting a key participant to a meeting goes unanswered the meeting may have to be postponed, or at best, the meeting organizer may have to spend time and effort chasing the unresponsive person. Delayed meetings disrupt project schedules. Chasing people for responses distracts people from more productive work; it is an annoying waste of time and effort.
How can you better understand the reasons behind the unresponsive person’s communication (or lack thereof)? Since only the unresponsive person knows why they are behaving as they are, the ideal first course of action is to ask them why.
Unfortunately, asking why is quite confrontational, and often leads to responses that do not get to the bottom of the issue. We might probe first, “I have noticed that you often take several days to respond to my emails, this creates a problem for me and for the project we are working on. How can we address that?” Hopefully, that will lead to a productive dialogue and you will be able to resolve the issue without having to do anything more. If a conversation doesn’t do the trick then you can be persistent in reminding the person, you might cc their boss on the reminder. Ultimately you may need to escalate to a higher authority if that is a practical option. Keep in mind that escalation and cc’ing an authority figure are actions that require thought and may backfire, but that is a subject for another article.
Pre-empt – Enhance Your Communication Plan
The most effective way to avoid, or at least minimize, the responsiveness problem is to confront it before it arises. An item in the communication plan should clearly state the need for responsiveness and address the expectation that every email or voice message be responded to within a day of its receipt. In some cases the response time may be shorter or longer depending on circumstances, but the communication plan should put a stake in the ground.
The immediate response might be a simple email that says I have received your message and will be getting back to you within X days. Even if it is an automated response, it is better than nothing. This follows the principle that is common in customer service – setting clear service level expectations. Think about how things might change if we treated everyone we work with as a valued customer.
Remind people that follow up response time depends on how critical the content, and should not be dependent on who sends the message. Senders should clearly state their response needs in their messages.
If upon analysis it is found that there are too many messages to allow for timely response, assess staffing levels, business processes, and roles and responsibilities to address the root causes.
In the end, apply good sense, understanding, empathy, and common courtesy to achieve effective email and voice message response times. These will contribute to project success.
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