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I am a software engineer from the Ukraine working in a multinational company. My manager is located in the USA. I have a communication problem with my manager that I will explain with an example.

I have two tasks assigned to me - A and B. Task A has the earliest deadline. But to complete task A, I need to complete task B first, because task A depends on task B.

I wrote an email to my manager and asked to change the project schedule and exchange deadlines for tasks A and B, with explanations why I need to work on task B first.

I also know that there are no special time constrains for task A - we are in the middle of a release, so there are no visible problems with changing the schedule.

My problem is that I got no response on this email. I'm pretty sure my manager read the email, because he responded to another email (another topic) I sent same day. He intentionally did not respond, and I do not understand what that means.

I have the impression this is some feature of American corporate culture, because this is not a first case in my working experience when a manager in an American company behaved this way.

A manager from Ukraine or Russia would usually respond with yes or no. A manager from Western Europe would respond with yes or no, or would talk to me if he or she does not want to write a response for some reason. But in my case I have the feeling I'm communicating with a black hole - just no response. And I can not say that this manager does not like me - at least he supported my salary increase during the last review. I also know that this situation is not personal to me - other developers complain of the same problem.

So I would like to ask American nationals to advise how to interpret such behavior or even better, advise me what action to take. Even recommending me some good book or article about American corporate culture or something like that.

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marked as duplicate by gnat, jcmeloni, ReallyTiredOfThisGame, Michael Grubey, Monica Cellio Jun 25 at 19:12

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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Is this a bigger issue than just this one email? Because if it's just the one, perhaps your boss is human and forgot - I'd suggest sending them a nudge, asking again if they've had a chance to think about your request –  yochannah Jun 17 at 11:20
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Can you call him on the phone. He might not have an answer for you yet also. –  Ramhound Jun 17 at 11:31
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Has he intentionally not responded to other emails? If it only happens once, it might not be a pattern of intentional behaviour. I've worked with people who were very busy, and when they realized they'd missed an email, they'd respond. Also, I'm not sure there's anything "American" about this - I've had American managers who are usually quite good about responding to questions such as this. –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Jun 17 at 13:53
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In the subject line, I usually add [Response Required] to the beginning, and sometimes even [URGENT] or [Low Priority], depending on the content. It worked everytime for me. –  Canadian Luke Jun 17 at 15:25
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I am a big fan of emails that say "I am going to do X unless I hear from you .... more details ... ". Partly it's "offer solutions, not problems" and partly it's a way of saying "something will happen anyway, better get onto it". The result is that I spend less time twiddling my thumbs waiting for replies. –  Mσᶎ Jun 17 at 23:34

7 Answers 7

up vote 61 down vote accepted

At my last job, I inherited a relationship between my company and a large number of Ukrainian outsourcers (Softserve) that was suffering from this issue. Our people would lay out a general message of what we want to do in an email or ticket. The Ukrainians would read it and ask questions. Some of those questions would get answered, others would go unanswered, others would get ambiguous answers from members of the staff arguing about it. The outsourcers, having good initiative, would eventually give up on the questions and implement something, which then members of the team would gripe about because it "wasn't what they wanted." When I came on, my boss told me "Take a look at these Softserve guys, they're not delivering, I think maybe we just need to get rid of them, up to you." Once I investigated I replied "There's nothing wrong here that isn't our fault." Then I worked on turning that relationship around via communication and it was very successful. But many people don't know how to manage an outsourcing relationship of this sort.

Here are some reasons you may not be getting an answer, I hope they provide some insight into what an American tech company may be doing internally that seems odd to you.

  1. The manager may simply be overwhelmed with email. I know I got to the point in that position (managing 4 teams, 30 outsourcers on top of American staff, a critical position with support and sales touchpoints) where I was getting about 300 emails a day (not counting automated stuff like ticket updates and alerts, then it was more like 800), and if a quick look at an email indicated to me that the right thing would probably happen without my intervention - it might not get answered. Prioritization has to be ruthless sometimes. He may not even see it, or he may see it and think "he'll figure it out" and is under the gun to do something else right then. Or, he has to go get more information or permission from somewhere else, causing a delay (and when there's a delay like that it incurs more risk that the chain will get broken somewhere and the email forgotten).

  2. The manager may think they already gave an answer - in another email, or to a teammate of yours, or verbally on the standup call that morning, or to your management - and assumes that the matter is settled. I know that when I felt a question couldn't be answered with a yes/no but needed its frame discussed, especially with someone with not so great English skills, I'd sometimes talk to the outsourcer manager or tech lead and have them talk to the person. Or they were asking an overly technical question and I'd point at a local tech lead and say "You! Follow up with Anton and answer this question." As a manager, once you have passed "the ball" to anyone it's easy to see your plate as cleared of that issue even when that might not quite be the case.

  3. They may be trying to get you to show initiative. It's hard being an outsourcer - some companies want to treat you like a field slave and you shouldn't do anything someone didn't explicitly ask you to and write a big spec up for. Others want you to be working alongside their American engineers and be free to innovate and full of initiative and all that. We were one of the latter, and we had to work with the engineers and their management a lot to say "hey, please don't tell them what to do, and don't assign tasks. We want them to pull tasks from the scrum of their own volition and we want to leverage their smarts by letting them make decisions." So we tried to discourage "Mother May I" questions in the interest of empowerment.

  4. Pure communication issues - I'm not even going to call it language barrier, because it's happened between me and my local bosses too. They skim an email and assume it's just me telling them what's going on. Or the email was to multiple people and they're not assuming that an answer should come from them. Unless there's a big red blinking line saying "ANSWER REQUIRED FROM YOU - YES YOU, MR. SMITH" they may just be overlooking the call to action in the email. Assume for each level up in management above you that their reading level has regressed to a much lower level - middle school for front line managers, elementary school for upper managers, kindergarten for a CEO. Sad but true. Also remember they are working at a higher level - if you put a question in as say a comment on a ticket, something that all the technical folks would see, the manager may not be as hip deep in the tactical execution and not see it. (I know sometimes people would say "I put in a JIRA comment asking for your thoughts" and I'd say "I filter all that out to a folder because I get hundreds of ticket updates a day, reach out to me specifically if you need something")

Ways you can try to mitigate it.

  1. Bypass Asking When Appropriate. Understand the degree to which they expect initiative and individual decisionmaking of you given their corporate culture, then execute under that line and don't ask questions if you don't really need to. Also, ask local tech leads/American tech leads etc/your local management questions that should probably go to them. In the B vs A case you cite, I would personally give guidance "Do the right thing, and just send an email saying 'I am doing B first because it's a prereq for A and A will get done on time' without asking it as a question." If they don't want you to make that change, they'll speak up, and you've removed a blocker for yourself and a task for them (mandatory answer). That's a win-win from a manager's point of view.

  2. Use Non-Email Communication. Use chat, phone, etc. to follow up - I know it's a little intimidating because of the time zone and language barrier but a phone call can cut to the chase on a week-long email tennis match. Email is actually a terrible communication method to get unambiguous and timely answers to questions, despite its convenience. If you have regular calls or standups, surface your questions there as blockers. If you don't, suggest having one! A 9 AM CT Webex/G+ standup works well for most American/Ukrainian teams (except sometimes West Coasters).

  3. Use Clear Email Communication. Make questions and to-dos clear in emails - the question and who you expect to answer it should be prominent. Put one question in an email - if you put multiple ones, or the questions are embedded in other explanatory text, they are likely to be overlooked. If you have to fit multiple thoughts in an email, use bullet points. Use colors/bold to make questions or people's names with to-dos stand out. Use subject lines that are clear, a [RESPONSE REQUIRED] or other similar designator in the subject will grab attention. Make answering easy for the manager and you're more likely to get an answer immediately. Follow up on unanswered questions (every 24 hours is fine); it's not rude to do so.

Here's an example of an email a manager's going to likely not see/ignore (pulled from my email archive).

To: 12 Team Members Including Manager A

Subject: Re: Search Alert: More than 0 results found for "Dev NPE or OOM

I noticed an issue of this message in the logs:

BIG MULTILINE LOG MESSAGE

and I think it means the app servers are restarting every four hours, maybe there is a bug or something. I think it could be a memory leak, last time we saw this on this other app it was blah blah please don't read this anymore... Maybe we should look at this instead of some other planned work.

Engineer X

From the manager's point of view it's a) not just to me, b) has some arcane subject line that's probably the techies nattering on about something. 50% chance to not read the email. If I have 5 spare seconds I read the email and, if I make it through the details, don't see a clear question and certainly not one addressed to me, and I move on. Now let's look at an email that will likely get me to read and respond.

To: Manager A

Cc: The Team

Subject: [RESPONSE REQUIRED] Stop work to address app server restarts

I discovered that the app servers are crashing and restarting about every four hours from our log alerts. This is a severe issue that affects customers intermittently.

Manager A, I propose I stop work on my sprint tasks to address this as an urgent incident. I spoke with Engineer Y and he agrees that is the right course of action, so both of us plan to work on this immediately. Is that acceptable?

Engineer X

First, you checked to confirm technical details with someone else before lighting me up. The [RESPONSE REQUIRED] and clear subject line draw me in, the bolded name and call to action lets me know what is required of me. And, there's a default course of action described, so if still I am unable to reply for some reason (caught in manager offsite where they yell at you if you're emailing!) I know what's going to happen.

To: Engineer X

Cc: Team

Subject: Re: [RESPONSE REQUIRED] Stop work to address app server restarts

go as you propose

(or) have Engineer Y work on that, you finish out your sprint task

(or) i do not understand, let's have a call to discuss

(or) no, Engineer Z told me about that and it's been going on for months, finish what you're on and we'll get that in the next sprint

Sent from my iPhone

Hope that helps some. Not all managers are used to working with outsourcers, and even those that are fall victim to time pressure and expectations. He certainly does not have any personal problem with you, just one (or more) of these factors is causing him to not answer sometimes.

P.S. Slava Ukraini!

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Excellent answer, which covers most bases for why this might be occurring! –  Brian S Jun 17 at 15:12
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Thanks a lot kind Sir! Most of answers to this question have valuable advices, but your answer is an Encyclopedia for every day usage by outsourcer like me. P.S. Re: Glory to heroes! :) –  Nulldevice Jun 17 at 20:26
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It works! I used one of proposed strategies by writing a very short question with yes or no options and got a required answer in 5 minutes! –  Nulldevice Jun 17 at 20:49
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fantastic answer which deserves to be seen by more ! –  user3139334 Jun 18 at 8:27
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As an American national, born and raised, I learned how to better manage my own personal email correspondence with managers and team from your answer! +1! –  BrianDHall Jun 18 at 13:13

So I would like to ask American nationals to advise how to interpret such behavior or even better, advise me what action to take.

I know of nothing generally in "American corporate culture" that would guide a manager of overseas staff to intentionally ignore one email and respond to another, unless there was a lot more to the situation than you have written.

Most likely you are over-analyzing this, and its just a case of a busy manager missing a response to an email. Its also possible that your manager is working on changing the schedule, and is just holding off with a response until the change is completed.

If you don't have anyone locally who could help, simply send the email again and indicate that you need some help with the schedule in order to proceed.

If you haven't gotten a response within a day or so, call.

Try not to ascribe a few missed responses to a sinister behavior pattern.

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"Try not to ascribe a single missed response to a sinister behavior pattern." I don't think it's a single missed response in the OP's situation. He only gives one example, but the title says emails and he mentions that other employees encountered the same problem. –  Dennis Jun 17 at 13:25

Managers generally tend to like employees who take action and are proactive and avoid giving them more work. So next time, try rephrasing the letter. Instead of asking what you should do, tell them what you do and explain why. In this case; The only real alternative is to switch tasks, so just do it but make sure to inform everyone concerned and explain why.

There's a saying I've heard repeated a lot;It's easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. To me that means it's better to make a decision, that may be wrong, than to sit around and wait for someone else to make decisions for you.

This will of course depend on your company culture, some are more strict than others and may frown upon this kind of behaviour. If they do, I'd say that is an indication that you should start to look for another job.

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Admittedly, as an American manager, my first thought was "I wonder if that poor manager is as deluged with email as I am?" I may be inferring based on my own often overwhelmed state, but I can bet that you can research this a bit:

  • Get a sense of how much email the staff who is local to you sends him and multiply accordingly for any other remote staff - figure that those who have a serious time zone offset are more likely to send email than folks who are colocated with the manager

  • Check out his calendar for his normal work day - even if he hasn't shared it, you can try booking a meeeting with him to see his free/busy time.

If this guy is getting 100 or more meaningful emails (written to him, for his feedback) and/or he's booked more than 6 hours most days - he is simply overwhelmed.

My bet would be that between the overload of being a busy manager and the time delay imposed by Ukraine/US communication - he's simply doing the best he can to answer the emails where he feels he can have the most impact, and ignoring what he can't get done in a day. Sadly, he may also be saying to himself "I'll handle that tomorrow" - with the problem that tomorrow is equally busy.

Things you can do:

  • Do find some one on one time to talk to the guy - even if you are oversees. Ask whether there are some areas you can take additional initiative w/out needing to send email.

  • When a decision is obvious and action is needed, it's OK to send an email with a timer - "If I don't hear from you by tomorrow, I'll assume this is OK and do XYZ accordingly" - that would be viable in this case - you know the order you must take to get the work done, you aren't jeopardizing the schedule, you are just fixing a problem in a reasonable way - saying "I'll start B and finish A when B is done" is pretty reasonable. Then he has the info, but he doesn't HAVE to respond for you to take action.

  • Keep emails short and sweet. When an action really is needed, make the action clear and keep the details as short as possible.

Americans can be terse to the point of bluntness in the eyes of other cultures, and we often have less formality in how we do business - including seeing our team members who report to us as nearly our equals. So any buffering or care in terms of laying out a palatable way of saying things is not as important as getting to the point.

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+1 for "getting to the point" –  Ben Collins Jun 18 at 14:49

It has nothing to do with American corporate culture, where we expect managers to provide their subordinates with the support that the subordinates need to do their jobs. It has everything to do with your manager's failure as an individual to work with you and give you the answer that you are entitled to, be his answer a "yes" or a "no"

To be fair, the deadlines in question may have been set by others above him and he may not have the authority to change them by himself. And if he wants to change them, he may have to work through others to change them. As you may know, in any corporate culture - American or otherwise - it usually takes only one person to say "no" but it takes several people to say "yes". And getting several people to say "yes" takes time and follow up :) And any request to say "yes" must be supported with good justification :)

For the time being, do what's rational, which is to complete task B because you do task A, unless you can do task A while treating task B like a black box that you can mock up. And follow up with him with a renewed request for an answer.

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The manager is probably overwhelmed with mails and can't respond, nothing personal.

At the end of your mail, you could give him a short question and two links, so he only needs to click YES or NO. Will save a lot of time and your next salary negotiation is saved.

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Many English speakers tend to (at workplace) ignore people if they think their opinion is stupid or doesn't make sense. They prefer providing no answer in opposed to creating to a potential conflict or offending you. They also might get offended in case you publicly disapprove of their proposed solution. I personally don't find it productive, but the trick was for me to learn to read between the lines.

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