An Open Letter to Leaders: What Your Followers Really Think When You Don't Get Back to Them

Dear Leaders, day in and day out we, your’ followers, use email, text messages, voicemail and the like to communicate with you. There are many times -- probably more than you care to admit or recall -- when you don't respond to our messages in a timely fashion or, in some cases, at all. As your’ followers, we thought you might want to know a bit more about what we're thinking when you don't get back to us.

First off, we know you're busy. You are, after all, in a leadership position. Few people in leadership positions have lots of spare time. In fact, your lack of time is one of the reasons we sent you that email. It took us an extra hour to type out the details of the situation and options for moving forward. We thought this format would be most helpful to you, so we spent the extra time to include the details you needed. Hopefully you appreciate that. But it seems likely that you don't. A week has now passed and you've not even acknowledged having received the email. This leaves us with a number of questions...

... Does any of this matter?You asked us to get back to you on this. We did. You haven't had anything extraordinary going on this week that we're aware of so your silence makes us wonder if this project matters. We think it does but, honestly, if you don't think it's all that important, we're wondering why we should.

... Are you really that busy? To suggest that you don't have time to even acknowledge that you received the email is to suggest that you are the most efficient human on the planet. We both know that's not true. Are you meaning to tell us that you can't make time to say, "I got your note. Thanks for your efforts in detailing the situation. I'm not able to give this its proper attention at the moment, but I will soon. Expect to hear back from me about this next week." We just timed ourselves typing that out. It took 46.8 seconds (and that included correcting two typos). You don't have 46.8 seconds to invest in keeping your team engaged and feeling that their work matters? (We bet you could even get it down to under 20 seconds if you dictated the note to your assistant.) You aren't too busy too acknowledge us. You just haven't done it.

... Are you that self-centered?Look, we get that this question is a little self-condemning. It shows that we're being judgmental of you. But this is human nature: when there's a void in communication we usually fill it with something negative. We don't actually know what it's like to have the fullness of your responsibilities. And we don't know if you've got extra burdens right now like a sick child or spouse. But truthfully, we're not thinking about any of that. All we know is that you're the boss and you haven't responded. It makes us wonder if most of the deadlines you give us are actually to serve your conveniences rather than the necessities of the organization. Is our existence here really about what works easiest for you?

... Do we matter?We can see you rolling your eyes at this one. You're thinking, "What kind of mentally weak team am I leading?" You can try to let yourself off the hook by focusing on that thought, but the truth is, there isn't a soul on the planet that doesn't want to matter. As the leader, you have extraordinary power to help us feel valued. We will run through walls seven days a week and twice on Sunday for leaders who let us know that we matter. Isn't that what you want? Acknowledgement that you've received what we sent you, even if you don't have time to deal with it right now, goes a long way in letting us know that we matter to the organization and to you. And your silence communicates the opposite.

... Are we here to be your slaves?We're happy to give a solid effort. We actually want to do a good job. And we're happy to serve the organization in what we're attempting to do. But we're not ok with being a slaves. As we think about it, the difference between making us feel like slaves and making us feel like valuable team members is rather small. Both slaves and valued team members work their tails off. Both slaves and valued team members make contributions to something bigger than themselves. Both slaves and valued team members understand that they aren't in positions of ultimate authority. The difference comes in acknowledgement. A valued team member -- which, by the way, we could take great pride in being -- gets acknowledged. The slave isn't acknowledged. Slaves are expected to perform well without acknowledgment of their existence. Due to personal needs for income and security, we might be willing to be slaves for a few seasons of life. But in the long run, when other options present themselves, we're going to bolt. We don't want to be slaves.

None of these questions would come up if this was the first time you had responded to us with silence. But let's be honest: this happens all the time. We work to be thorough and meet deadlines while you get back to us seemingly whenever it is convenient for you...or not at all. If you don't have time to respond with an answer, that's fine; just let us know that and acknowledge that you've received what we sent you. If you don't have the time or energy to even acknowledge us, then you don't have the time or energy to lead well.

Boss, you're communicating quite a lot through your silence. We're just wondering if any of it is what the best leader inside of you would want to communicate.

Sincerely, Your Followers

Share Your Thoughts: Have you worked for a leader who consistently failed to acknowledge that you were communicating with him/her? As a leader, have you developed any practices or processes to ensure you were getting back to your followers in a timely fashion? Tell us about it. We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.