I’d like to thank Jay for suggesting the topic for this week’s post as it’s one which we often encounter when managing or supporting projects – that of the silent recipient. The silent recipient is the team member, sponsor or stakeholder who doesn’t reply when a request is made or when an action, issue or risk is assigned to them. The original communication of the request may have been made live, over the phone or via an e-mail message but the resulting action or lack thereof is the same.
While occasionally, such behavior could be chalked up to a failure in the communication medium (e.g. the e-mail message was never delivered), more often than not, if this was a one time occurrence, the problem usually is with the sender or the recipient. In such cases, sender-side issues are usually related to a lack of clarity or specificity regarding the request or its relative urgency. If the fault lies on the recipient side, it could be due to their being temporarily overwhelmed and unable to respond in a timely fashion.
But sometimes, to quote Goldfinger “‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action“.
My first recommendation when faced with chronic cases is to request a meeting with the offending recipient and during that session, make them aware of the impacts their behavior is causing to the project (first) and to you (second). Be as specific as possible – reference recent requests which were made and ignored and resist the temptation to overstate the impacts. Also, ensure they are aware of how responding to and completing these requests in a timely fashion will in turn benefit them – never forget WIIFM!
Their reaction to this feedback should help to guide your next course of action.
If they are genuinely surprised or if they acknowledge the impacts but provide you with reasonable explanations as to why they did not respond in a timely fashion, work with them to come up with a mutually acceptable way to communicate and respond to requests in the future. This might be a learning for you – were expectations well set at the outset of their project involvement?
On the other hand, if they appear to be in denial or worse yet, start to become defensive or aggressive, two choices are escalation or impact reduction.
In the case of a team member or a stakeholder, escalation through appropriate channels (e.g. functional managers or your sponsor) might work well, especially if you’ve taken the time to foster positive relationships with the people you are escalating to, and focus on the impacts which the behavior is causing. Through this discussion, if it becomes apparent that the responsiveness issue stems for your project having lower priority relative to other work the individual is engaged in, then focus on addressing the priority issue and if that cannot be addressed, then seek approval to re-baseline your project based on its reduced priority.
However, if escalation is not viable, either because there is no politically correct avenue for escalation (e.g. the recipient in question is your boss) or because you don’t have an existing relationship in place which can be called upon for escalation, focus on impact reduction. One such approach, especially if the requests were to secure approval on a course of action, is to follow the old saying of “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission” so long as the rationale behind your actions is well documented and defensible and the actions were taken in the best interests of the project.
“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Through clarity, intervention, escalation or impact reduction you can ensure the sound of your requests are heard!