Getting People to Answer

A Navy Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) came into my office recently. “Sir, I have emailed Lt. Col X several times and she hasn’t answered yet. All I get is radio silence. Could you help?” This young officer was voicing a concern that I hear frequently; someone that they are trying to work with, or get something from, wasn’t answering. Or at least they weren’t answering fast enough to suit us at higher headquarters. When faced with such a problem, many junior staffers go to the Boss, hoping that he or she will contact the person and get immediate results. Sometimes if the issue is urgent that is the right approach. Sometimes even going directly to the boss of Lt. Col X is the best approach. Often, however, it is better for the junior staffer to get the information themselves, and there are many ways to do that. I have been faced with similar problems in the past and have learned the hard way that, unless the issue is urgent, I need to exhaust my options for resolving problems, such as radio silence from someone I am supposed to work with, before going further up the chain.

Make sure that you are asking for the right thing

Ultimately any request, whether for information or for a task to be done, must be right. The energy that it takes to do it must be worth the value that comes out of it. We have to ask the right person; it is no good asking the chief of patient administration to do something that the chief of neurosurgery should be doing. We have to be clear in our request and respectful in the delivery. We must only make ethical demands. In medicine our requests must be the right thing to do for our patients and other stakeholders.

Give a little time

Sometimes it is a little embarrassing to remember past mistakes. Several years ago our commander at William Beaumont Army Medical Center received a suggestion to cut imaging costs by preventing physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners and primary care physicians from ordering expensive magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. He asked me to get information from my department, primary care, and from other departments to address the question. In the flood of other tasks I quickly forgot until a few days before the information was due. A cold knot welled up in my stomach and a sent out a flood of emails to everyone involved so that I could at least shift the blame to them if I didn’t get the data in time. Or so I thought…

There are lots of good reasons why people don’t respond as quickly as we would like. Sometimes they just don’t get the message, whether because it is lost in cyberspace or because they are out of the office. Other times they get it but are so far behind on email that they don’t see it. The more emails I receive, the more I sympathize with this problem. Everyone is busy, and an issue that I consider urgent may not be urgent to someone else.  Sometimes requests are confusing and the recipient truly doesn’t know what they are being asked to do.  

Assume the best

Most people do not want to do the wrong thing. If your request is reasonable and you ask in a timely and friendly manner, most will want to honor it and will feel guilty if they don’t. We sometimes assume that we will act with wisdom and compassion while others act with foolishness and spite, assuming the best about ourselves but the worst about others. This arrogant attitude only makes it harder to get good things done.

Even in the worst of circumstances it is usually unhelpful to assume malice. Shortly after my father died my mother received an email from her health insurance provider stating that he had technically been off of her insurance during his last six months of life. Therefore they were going to bill her for his chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hospitalizations. Mom was panicky and my brother was furious, so she asked me what to do. I replied that in situations like this you will more often be correct if you assume laziness and incompetence rather than malice and villainy.  Calmed slightly, my mother called the insurance company. After getting referred a couple of levels up the management chain, she learned that a computer error, a policy change, and an unwillingness on the part of some of their staff to look deeper had combined to generate this misunderstanding. Everything was covered.

Flip the roles

In another instance we had asked our subordinate command to provide a report about a recent mock Joint Commission inspection. Rumor suggested that the results were not pretty, and they were dragging their feet. After many weeks and many entreaties our Quality Management shop turned to me for help. I contacted their chief of staff, listened while she explained their perspective and then clearly explained ours. Then I asked “if our roles were reversed, wouldn’t you and your commander want the same thing?” The report appeared in my inbox the same day.

Name drop

Every organization is conscious of rank and position, no matter how flat they are organizationally. The larger the organization, however, the more conscious of such things it tends to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the military. Sometimes stating that a request is from a colonel or Navy captain rather than from a lieutenant commander or major is enough to get results. Even better, sending an email that has the higher ranking officer on the courtesy copy list lets the recipient know that a boss is looking at the request. More than once this has made the difference between action and inaction.

Fingers, voice and feet

It is easy to send an email, and equally easy to miss or ignore an email. It is much harder to ignore a ringing phone, especially one that rings again and again. It is hardest of all to ignore a person sitting across from your desk or in the waiting room outside your office. If the target of your inquiry is not intentionally avoiding the issue, a phone call may be all that is needed to get results. Phone tag is not a bad thing if you are able to make headway. Further, emails can be confusing, clouding the picture more than clarifying it in many cases. This is especially true for complicated or contentious issues. Even if the target of your inquiry is intentionally avoiding you, a phone call or even a visit is vital. The communication motto for my staff is “friendly, but relentless.”

In the modern day of emails, texts and web posts it can be difficult and even threatening to have tense conversations over the phone or in person, but some things will never get done otherwise. People who can handle these situations well are like diamonds, scarce and precious.

Give something they want

Everyone wants something, and the person that you need information from is no exception. Sometimes they feel overwhelmed and want less to do so if you have asked them for three things and reduce that to only two, they may be happy enough to comply. Sometimes they want an encouraging word or even a complement about them to their boss. Sometimes they just want to be listened to, and if you spend five minutes listening to their challenges they will reward you with what you need. Sometimes they need help with what you are asking them to do; the Navy LCDR offered to help Lt Col X compile the data he requested.

People at lower headquarters need to know that their higher headquarters is doing something to benefit them. Staffers at higher levels can make their work easier by being value added for those at lower levels. Sometimes giving them “something they want” means protecting them from something that they don’t want.

Think outside the organization itself. Higher levels of command have more than just money and people to give to their subordinates. They have expertise and experience to share, and sometimes people at lower commands need and even want that expertise. They also have access to media outlets, whether a base newspaper or a local radio station, where they can spread the word about the good things that their subordinate command is doing.

Double team, diversely if possible

In the introductory story the Navy LCDR was trying to get information from Lt. Col X, and was getting the stiff arm. He had given it time, assumed the best, and dropped names. He had called and gotten nothing, so the next approach was to double team her. A young active duty Navy male had tried, so he enlisted an older civilian female.

Why try this, because two can apply more pressure than one, and can apply it in slightly different ways.  Who knows why Lt. Col X was resisting his entreaties? Perhaps this officer had a mannerism that she didn’t like, perhaps she interpreted his actions negatively, or his age, race, sex, service, or something else put her off. Discrimination based on these factors exists, and we must overcome it. As rational as we like to think we are, man is an inherently irrational creature. Man is also a tribal creature, with whom identity and identification matter. Perhaps involving someone who was more like Lt. Col X would influence her to provide the assistance needed.

The 360

Those we try to influence do not work alone; they have bosses, subordinates and peers. Since Lt. Col X outranked the Navy LCDR, another possibility was for him to approach her deputy, an Army major, and ask if Lt. Col X had been out of the office or had some other reason why she hadn’t replied. He then asked if he could do anything to help the major help his boss, Lt Col X.  

This technique is useful because everyone is influenced by those around them. Perhaps convincing a certain peer of Lt Col X that this task was important would be enough to get her to do it. Even a trusted subordinate could do the trick.

The Boss 

If the request for information or the task that needs to be done is urgent, sometimes lower level staffers have to go straight to their Boss, and he or she has to go straight to the other person’s Boss. Most requests, however, are routine. If a staff member has done everything that he or she can and still gets nowhere, the Boss must act. Senior leaders have various options, including all of the ones noted above. For example, I could go directly to Lt Col X’s boss or to her boss two levels up.

There is danger in doing this in the wrong way. Years ago when I was a young Army captain I was working in a clinic in Germany and my boss had made an unpopular decision and gone to lunch. A few minutes later a brigadier general came into the clinic. Since I was the ranking officer there at the time our near-panicky executive officer came to me and said “Dr. Harris, a general is at the front desk and wants to speak to you!” When I asked the general what I could do for him, he said “Dr. Harris, someone at this clinic made a decision a few minutes ago and I came in hoping that I could influence that decision.” He never said “I order you”, he never demanded, and he was never cross or even stern. Knowing that he had tremendous power, the general was very gentle in how he used it.  I never forgot the lesson.

There is also danger in doing this too much. Leaders and subordinates grow weary of leaders who seem to be throwing their weight around. Senior leaders are generally very busy and have little time to devote to non-senior-leader level things. Getting involved in staff level work too often impairs a leader’s own ability to get other work done.   

Conclusion

Poor communication and cooperation at every level is, and always has been, a problem in and between organizations. Staffers must do everything they can to fix this problem, including asking for the right thing, allowing time and assuming the best. They can flip the roles, drop names, and use fingers, voice and feet to accomplish their mission, always being ready to give a little in order to get a little. They enlist other people to help them. If all else fails or if time is short, they ask their boss for assistance. Ultimately the mission is what matters, and everyone at every level must accomplish it.  

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