The Bermuda Triangle of Communication: Why Follow-Up Culture Is Terrible

We’ve all been there — whether at work or in our personal lives, we’ve all encountered that person who “vanishes” in the middle of a conversation. In today’s primary forms of communication — texting, email, and calling — there is no way of knowing whether or not the person you are trying to reach has received your message until she has responded. There is a complete lack of accountability. This often creates the need to follow-up. It’s annoying, tedious, and should be totally unnecessary, yet it plagues all three communication channels.


At work, email has traditionally been the de facto mode of communication. Email was never really built for an ‘immediate response’ situation, yet people use email in urgent situations all the time. You NEED to get the paperwork, but it’s been half an hour and Dan hasn’t responded. There is no way of knowing whether Dan has received your email, so you email him again. And again and again… until the clock runs out on what you were trying to accomplish.


When a colleague cannot be reached through email, many turn to texting. While informal, texting has proven much more conducive to immediate response. Because of this, it is often used in place of email for more urgent communication. According to TIME Magazine, Americans age 18-29 send and receive an average of almost 88 texts a day, compared to just 17 phone calls. Older Americans less heavily favor, but importantly still favor, texting; even in the 65 and over group, the ratio of texts to calls is 4.7 to 3.8. (Besides immediacy, texting is also more conducive to an introverted style of management). However, people ignore texts just as frequently as they ignore emails, and read receipts of text messages aren’t widely available.


When texts fail, calling is the next best option. These days, if you’re picking up the phone to call someone, it’s probably important. So if a coworker doesn’t pick up the phone, there’s a big problem. You can get your message across with a voicemail, but until they call you back, you can’t know whether they have even received it in the first place (how often do people check their voicemail these days?).

As shown above, with every mode of communication comes a way for a coworker to drop off the face of the earth, and the responsibility falls on you to initiate contact. Following up is particularly awful because:

1. It’s tiring

Having to look up a colleague’s contact, reach out, draft an email explaining the situation, and leave multiple voicemails takes effort. This is especially so for individuals who might be averse to phone conversations, or who do not have ready access to connected devices.

2. It’s stressful

The uncertainty around whether your colleague will respond to your reachout creates intense stress: there’s a possibility that you might not be able to achieve what you set out to do because a process is bottlenecked at an unresponsive staff member. This stress is compounded because accountability really becomes an issue when important tasks need to be completed. You are worried, but not extremely frustrated when your coworker doesn’t get back to you on a project that is due in months. You are infuriated when the same coworkers doesn’t respond when you’ve tried emailing, calling, and texting for something that’s due to a client at this very moment.

3. It wastes time that could have been used more productively

Time is wasted waiting for someone to respond: blocks of time need to be set aside to wait for a response, and the longer you wait, the more productive activities you might be sacrificing. This is especially frustrating when all you need is a confirmation that the recipient has received the message and is acting upon your communication. Also, if you do not hear back, it is often better to contact another coworker to take over the task. Should the original recipient have received the message and also done the work, the effort would have been duplicated.

The Solution?

In order to save the time and aggravation caused by the need to follow up, accountability needs to be embedded in everything we do, starting with our communication channels. Features such as built-in confirmation requests will not only eliminate the uncertainty that leads to following up, but also facilitate faster responses. Of course, it’s not enough to just adopt tools that encourage accountability. As we discussed in another post, positive change happens by uniting good tools with good users. A culture of responsiveness and awareness needs to be inculcated within the workplace. The team needs to understand the costs of being unresponsive, and strong communicators need to be recognized and rewarded for being considerate to colleagues’ time and effort. When both the right culture and tools have been put in place, work becomes much more efficient, and a whole lot more enjoyable too.

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