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13 August 2021

It is your responsibility to respond

by Florian

This post is a response to and my thoughts on Alexey Guzey’s blog post “It is Your Responsibility to Follow Up”. I recommend you read that first.

He’s Not Wrong?

My point in writing this isn’t to say that his post is wrong, it’s not. If you want to reach somebody who’s very busy and pressed for time, reach out to them multiple times.

This post is less a criticism of that advice, and more a lamentation of the fact that we’re so bad at digital communication that Guzey’s thinking is the norm.

It Is Your Responsibility to Respond

In 99% of cases, it’s actually your responsibility to respond. If you’re cold e-mailing someone, sure, take Guzey’s advice and send them 4 e-mails to get a subscription to your newsletter or whatever. But, if you’re working a typical 9-5 knowledge work job, your email is your job and your chat app is your job.

If I walked up to your desk at work and said, “Hi, how’s [some project] going?” and you sat and ignored me, I would be upset! You would acknowledge that this is rude behavior! (I’m stealing this example from Adam Grant’s excellent NYT Opinion piece.)

In an office work setting, that’s what ignoring an email or chat message is. I have no other way to contact you! You are not a faceless statistic I’m trying to get interested in my company or newsletter. You’re somebody I have to work with everyday, and me not pissing you off by spamming you with messages is actually very important for us working together.

What’s more, I don’t want to spam you with messages. As an introverted person, I wouldn’t walk up to somebody 4+ times a day to get their attention. That’s incredibly uncomfortable to me and I largely feel the same way about e-mailing or pinging somebody repeatedly to get a response. Especially since everybody is constantly complaining about getting too many e-mails and pings as it is!

The inevitable response I’ve gotten to this argument is, roughly: “Get over it and annoy them until they respond.” Why is it my responsibility to feel uncomfortable/awkward reaching out multiple times, but not theirs to type a quick message back? Their time is no more valuable than mine, and, most of the time, I’m trying to make our jobs easier by involving them sooner.

If you’re getting innundated with e-mails and not responding, you’re doing something wrong. Typically, this is due to one of 3 things. (1) You’ve either taken on too much responsibility and need to shed some of it to others so they stop e-mailing you; Or (2) you need to set clear boundaries around why to reach out to you; Or, (3) you’re using a tool wrong.

Egregious Examples of “It is Your Responsiblity to Follow Up”

My former manager is an excellent coder. He wrote all of our Jenkins pipelines as our product moved to the Cloud. He’s since switched products and now, as a result, nobody on our team really understands how the pipelines work. I raised a PR against his old code and he responded once and then stopped responding. Do I follow up and ask for input on code that I don’t really need his input on since he’s not on the team? Do I ping him and take away his time on another product? Do I ignore his feedback? Which of these will be most/least annoying? I have no idea! We wound up waiting around a day or two for his response and then ignored him and merged it.

My first Product Manager (PM) was terrible at responding and answering e-mails. We used Jira to track our work and would frequently post questions for her to answer in the tool. When you do this, it sends you an e-mail essentially saying “so-and-so needs input on this product feature.” She aggressively ignored these to the point of forwarding all of them to a folder she never checked. So then, we had to ping her, but she she often wouldn’t respond. The chat app we used would forward you an e-mail of the message if you didn’t respond in a couple hours to make sure you saw it, which she also forwarded to a folder that she ignored. So we would typically then send her an e-mail directly asking for a response on the original ticket.

At this point, I’ve done my “responsibility to follow up” and we’ve gone from a single e-mail from the Jira software, to at least 4 e-mails/requests for her attention. At what point is it her responsibility to respond and not my responsibility to follow up? The crucial difference here from Guzey’s article is that I don’t actually need her response to a product feature. I’m perfectly capable of making a product decision, they’re the ones who want to be involved in the decision and, by implication, get the e-mails about it. In my mind, they should be obligated to respond.

Product Managers are the worst offenders of this in my experience, but engineers can be just as bad. I got shifted on to a brand new product as a frontend engineer. We got assigned to choose a frontend framework and add a header and footer. I tried reaching out to the current frontend engineer to divy up stories and talk about frameworks. He ignored my message. So, I setup a meeting. He ignored that. So, I followed up with another message. Ignored. From my perspective, I’m trying to help him by picking up tickets/stories he doesn’t want to do or at least take some work off his plate. Why is it my responsibility to follow up?

A World of Responsibility to Follow Up

This is such an incredibly sad excerpt from Guzey’s post:

This is true even for people you know personally! A story: when I wanted to meet with a really busy friend of mine in SF, I first sent him 2 twitter DMs, then 2 emails, and then 3 text messages, letting him know that I will keep sending one text a day, until an email from him finally landed in my inbox letting me know that he would love to get lunch.

What a terrible situation! Are we supposed to all message each other 8+ times to just get a response? Is that the world we want to live in? Your time is just as valuable as his and you shouldn’t have to virtually beg to meet for lunch.

Besides, isn’t this just promolgating the very problem we’re trying to solve - too much e-mail? We’re taking basic responsibility and time management to respond to a single e-mail and replacing it with sending 4+ e-mails and a lottery response system. Even if it works, it doesn’t mean it’s right.

A World of Responisbility to Respond

You’re not a VC. You’re not a god who’s disciples are clamoring for your feedback. You’re a normal person working a 9-5 job. You get a few e-mails a day and you respond promptly.

The people who sent them are happy because they got a response. You’re happy because you’re only getting a few e-mails each day. If somebody sends you an e-mail about something not related to you or you can’t answer, you say that and the person stops e-mailing you about that kind of thing.

If an automated tool is sending you messages, you unsubscribe from it.

Isn’t this better than constantly messaging and pinging and asking for responses?

Is this naiveté on my part?

Maybe, but I’ve also been working professionally for five years and have almost always responded within a few hours to e-mails/chats and have never felt “e-mail overwhelm” or gotten 10k+ emails.

tags: posts - work - life