Learning & Development

Using an ‘Ultimatum’ to Prevent E-Mail Inaction

There are many benefits to e-mail communication over real-time, spoken communication. For one, because the conversation is in writing, there’s a record of what was said, which can be useful both for recollection and to settle any disputes about what might have been committed or agreed to.

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Sending an e-mail is often an easier way to organize thoughts than communicating verbally with colleagues and can be a way to convey information to a large group of people at the same time without having to find a time that works for everyone’s schedule to speak to all of them at once in real time.

But there are, of course, drawbacks to e-mail communication, as well.

The Drawbacks of E-Mail Communication

One of the most annoying realities of e-mail messages is the greater potential to get ignored when compared with real-time communication. It’s much easier, for example, for someone to ignore an e-mail asking when a certain deliverable will be completed than it is to stay silent when asked the same question in person or over the phone.

Of course, one can always send repeated follow-ups to “circle back” on a question, “check in” on an e-mail’s recipient, or “bring it to the top” of their inbox. But this simply creates additional busywork, with no better guarantee of a response.

Using Ultimatums

One strategy that can ensure a prompt response is to use an ultimatum, i.e., “This is my current plan, and I will act accordingly unless I hear otherwise from you by Friday.” Although “ultimatum” is a strong word, it simply represents a declaration to do X unless Y happens by Z date.

The idea is that if someone has received and read your e-mail but has just no responded, that person knows the inaction has a consequence. It may not necessarily be a negative consequence but rather simply an acceptance of the already proposed course of action.

But of course, this strategy does not fit all situations.

When Ultimatums Don’t, or Won’t, Work

In some cases, the e-mail sender may just need information, as opposed to permission to act. In addition, some actions may be too significant to realistically justify based on the lack of an e-mail receipt. Furthermore, interpreting silence as tacit approval leaves plenty of wiggle room for the silent recipient if the course of action turns out poorly.

Nevertheless, in certain low-impact situations, using an “ultimatum” can help break the stalemate and facilitate the next step forward. Either the ultimatum spurs the recipient to respond or it provides at least some level of tacit acceptance for next steps.

Give it a try!