You’ll spend a lot of time in your career waiting for someone to get back to you. You’ll want this person to have the same intensity in getting you an answer as you did in asking, but they won’t. Your urgency, now once removed, is mired in a reduction of oomph.
The game is to give someone enough time and space to do the work and get back to you, while staying on top of them in case they forgot or didn’t push the issue on their end.
There is a Goldilocks zone between “You’re being an asshole” and ”Thanks for reminding me,” but it’s a delicate, narrow channel one can barely fit through.
The (Main) Problem
Lost Signal. Typically your ask to a consultant, coworker, client or customer service splinters out from one person to many (approvals, review, input). Your question is not a contained variable, it’s just the first domino behind a blind curtain of miscommunication. Each human cog dilutes your necessity by half, such that even if your request gets to the actual decision maker it’s in a watered-down cup of “I couldn’t give a shit right now.”
Your direct contact may not have forgotten to start, but the input she needed to finish never came.
Who is ultimately responsible for your project? You are. If you could, you’d have a tracking device* on your question so you could essentially peer through the underside of a glass table while someone plays three-card monte, but alas, you are not a psychopath or a hacker.
*Please don’t add read receipts. Everyone hates read receipts. No one wants to be served an email subpoena while sipping their morning coffee. I’ll read my mail when I read my mail. Now get off my porch.
I know it burns when three days has passed since Mike told you that he’d “get back to you soon.” When you follow up with him, he says, “I’m still waiting to get an answer from Sarah,” but your Spidey sense tells you that he forgot to even ask Sarah, and is now scrambling to get you an answer. Your “hot potato” wasn’t ricocheting around another office, it was resting at room temperature, smooshed in the corner of someone’s mind for the better part of a week.
And there you are, processing the indecencies strewn your way by muttering that everyone else is an idiot.
That’s no way to live.
No two situations are alike and it depends on what part of the food chain you’re in and the relationship you already have with this person. Sometimes it’s fair to follow up with someone in an hour, sometimes it’s a week. Your judgement on that will go a long way to informing your superiors/clients/coworkers how you balance getting things done, without abiding by the scorched earth policy of communication. Where is it? I need it now!
Assuming your email is clear enough and human enough, by asking, “When is a fair time to follow up?” you allow the other person to define a checkpoint up front. They’re taking some accountability and ownership to your problem. It’s like Inception, only less cool.
On the flip side, to defend against being pestered by someone asking where something is, you can ask them upfront, “When do you need an answer by?”
Of course there is no perfect world; you want something back soon, while wanting more time to work on something else, but at least asking “When’s a fair time to follow up?” and “When do you need this by?” turns the Wild West of email** into some kind of fenced in ranch.
**There’s also things like storytelling, simplicity, framing, “cc/bcc” rules, what time of day to follow up, and when to pick up the phone instead, but those are other topics for another time.