Why don’t people do what I’ve asked them to do?

There are so many answers to this question.

You send out an email, having read it multiple times to make sure it was really clear, and still people don’t do what you’ve asked them to, or they only read part of it, or they ask you for information that was in the first email.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. It really is a case of them not taking the time to read things properly. However, I’ve also seen situations in which there were things that the email sender could have done to improve their chances of a positive response, so here are a few questions to ask yourself before you get annoyed with other people!

1. Did you make it easy for the other person to do what you wanted them to?

In a previous job, I took over responsibility for a task which involved collecting information from colleagues. The problem was that every colleague was sent a huge document, which they were expected to read and then give feedback on anything that was relevant. In reality, they didn’t have time to read such a long document, which meant that the request usually got ignored.

I put it into a spreadsheet with a filter, so that I could quickly create customised sheets for everyone that only included the information on which they needed to report. Unsurprisingly, people got on board with the process and I got results much faster!

So, try to make it as easy as possible for people to comply with your request. Don’t make them read lots of unnecessary information or complete a complicated return document that asks for information you could get from somewhere else.

2. Are you being reasonable?

Asking someone to do something that will take them a long time and giving them a really short deadline is in most cases not reasonable. Ok, things happen, and sometimes everyone needs to act quickly to deal with an unexpected situation, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. If you’ve known about something for a long time and then spring it on your colleagues at the last minute, without giving them time to reply to you and do their other work, that’s not fair. If they are not your members of staff, they may not be willing or able to do what you’re asking them to.

3. Is it possible?

Particularly when you’re dealing with people in other teams, make sure you know how things work, or at least ask how things work before making requests. I’ve had requests for data according to calendar year, whereas the system logged it according to the financial year. I’ve had requests for data that wasn’t recorded. I was responsible for our department’s web pages, but when someone demanded a change to the company’s main site, I wasn’t authorised to make it, and the people who were authorised said “no” and gave good reasons! Sometimes you can negotiate or ask someone to manually go through data to get what you need, but sometimes the answer has to be “no” because the thing you want isn’t possible, or is only possible with a lot of work, which may not be possible!

4. Are you asking the right person?

It’s not uncommon to have people with the same first name or surname in an organisation. I never authorised any of the financial requests that came to me that were meant for the other Kirsty. Of course I passed them on to her, but it made the process take longer.

5. Have you been clear about when you want the information and in what format?

Some people process their emails as they come in, but if you’re not clear about when you need information, other emails with deadlines may take priority. Also, if you want people to respond in a certain way so that it’s easier for you to log or sumarise the responses, make this clear before you start getting replies in different formats.

6. Have you explained why?

It’s not always necessary to justify why you want people to do things, but it sometimes helps, particularly if you want a quick reply. You could argue that people don’t need all the background information, but if I was collecting information for a response to a complaint, my colleagues knew that these had to be replied to within a certain number of days, so they would be more likely to prioritise it than if they thought I was collecting data for a general report. If they knew that I wanted feedback for a meeting on Friday, they would be more likely to get their ideas in before Friday so that their ideas would be discussed.

Final thoughts

You can still do all of these things and not get the results that you want, but at least if you are clear about the answers to the questions above, you’ll know that you’ve done what you can to make your request appropriate and easy to understand!

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Kirsty working with students



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