“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” – Alan Greenspan
Joe (not his real name) came to me with a problem one day. He was frustrated with one of his long-tenured employees who never seemed to deliver what Joe expected. He shared that, in this latest situation, he had asked Fred (not his real name) to complete the revised project budget he needed to share with the company’s biggest client. This client accounted for more than 20% of the organization’s annual revenue and this was project that was unexpectedly not going as planned and threatened to “go off the rails” – and the client was not happy. The CEO of the client’s organization had given Joe an opportunity to make a presentation to the client’s Executive Team. If they didn’t get the revised budget right, the likelihood of salvaging the relationship was slim.
Not only did Fred miss the deadline, he didn’t come close to what Joe had in mind as the final deliverable. And this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
After some serious venting on Joe’s part, where he was clearly angry, furious, frustrated, and desperate, I asked, “Joe, what role did you play in this breakdown? What have you done or not done that contributed to the problem?”
Joe’s anger immediately refocused on me. “What do you mean what have I done? I haven’t done anything wrong. Fred’s just not getting it. In fact, I’m half-tempted to fire him.”
“Joe,” I replied, “I’m not saying that you did anything wrong, but do you think Fred wakes up every morning and figures out how to frustrate you by not giving you what you ask for? Do you think he’s intentionally trying to perform at less-than-desirable standards? Do you think he deliberately chose to sabotage this client relationship?”
I could see Joe take a deep breath and answer, “Well, no. Fred’s actually one of my most valuable employees and always is trying to do things that put the organization in a better position. Tell me more of what you have in mind.”
“One of the greatest problems I see in organizations or relationships is the breakdown of making effective requests. That’s what I think might be going on here.”
According to Alan Sieler in “Coaching to the Human Soul, Volume I,” a request is “a call for assistance. We ask for help with something we can’t get done by ourselves. It implies that something is missing that, if fulfilled, will take care of a concern we have. In making a request, we’re committed to having someone else perform a future action for us.”
The speaker of the request is the customer; the hearer is the performer. The person making the request (the speaker) has a responsibility to be sincere – to genuinely want help at the time of the asking and continue to need that help right up to the time of delivery. The requestor also has to remember that the person we’re asking to help us must take time out from dealing with their own concerns, so we’re asking them to change their focus from taking care of themselves to helping us – sometimes to put aside their deadlines to help us meet ours.
If you accept a request (the performer), you have to genuinely want to help, have the competence to perform what’s been asked of you, and to keep in regular contact with the requestor on your progress. If unexpected circumstances occur that keep you from fulfilling your promise to deliver, you have to inform the requestor how these circumstances get in the way of you fulfilling the promise and renegotiate the request. Whenever conditions change – by either requestor or requestee – renegotiate the promise.
What is an effective request? It has specific elements that, if not present, can lead to breakdowns like we saw between Joe and Fred. They include:
- A specific future action to be performed
- By a specific time
- The requestor assumes the performer has the competence to successfully complete the request
- The requestor shares what may be obvious to him or her that may not be obvious to the requestee; why the request is being made
- The requestor identifies his or her conditions of satisfaction – what it takes to declare satisfaction with the outcome of the request
After describing this to Joe, I asked what his request looked like and how it lined up with what I had just shared.
He had a moment of illumination (that point where I saw the light bulb go off over his head) and said, “I never told Fred I needed it by 8:00 a.m. on Friday. I thought he would understand. And I never told him what, specifically, I was looking for in the final budget presentation – whether it was a bound hard copy, how many copies I needed, how I wanted them bound, if there was a corresponding PowerPoint that I wanted – I assumed he knew what I wanted. He’s been working for me for a long time.”
“Mind-reading is one of the biggest problems we have with people we know well. We expect them to know what we’re thinking. Joe, make a sign and put it on your computer or desk that says “No Mind Reading.” It will help you remember this the next time you have a request to make.
What are the possible responses to a request?
- Counter-offer (“I can’t do that, but I could do this.”)
- A commitment to commit at a later date (I need 24 hours to think about this, then I’ll get back to you.
Each of these responses is a promise – a commitment to take a specific course of action. And promises are the basis of trust in any relationship or organization. We build our relationships and the trust we have for each other based on our ability to consistently deliver our promises.
But in leadership, we also have to watch out for declarations disguised as requests. A declaration is “a statement with the force of authority behind it which immediately brings about a change in circumstances and generates a different reality.” (Sieler) “Would you have this report finished by the end of the day?” from a senior leader is often heard (and intended) as “Get this done by the end of the day.” There’s no choice. If the requestee can’t give one of the four answers, then there can be a degradation in the relationship. While we think we’re being “nice” by framing our declarations that way, we’re really robbing people of the ability to manage their work and contributing to the overwhelm that so many people in the workforce experience. Make sure your requests are requests and your declarations are declarations.
Let’s examine some of the breakdowns we cause in this interaction. The first is called a sloppy request. The effectiveness of the request depends upon the listening of the person accepting the request, so we have to make sure we’re engaging in language that makes things clear and if we don’t, we have to trust that the requestee will ask questions. Both parties have responsibility to make sure the request is effective.
Making sloppy requests can be a major source of suffering. Some of the contributing factors to a sloppy request include:
- Nothing specifically is asked for, but hints are thrown out; a request has not been made directly
- The request has not been made to a specific person
- The precise nature of the action(s) to be performed are not specified
- The exact time when the task is to be completed is not indicated
- The criteria (standards) by which we can judge the satisfactory completion of what has been asked are not clear (lack of clarity about the conditions of satisfaction)
- An assumption that the person making the request understands the terms and expressions we use
The second breakdown we experience is on the “performer’s” side, what we call a slippery promise – a non-definitive response to a request that is easy to listen to as a “yes.” My sons could share many “slippery promises” I made when they were growing up – “Dad, can we go skydiving?” “We’ll see.” “Dad, can we get a tatoo?” “Let me think about it.” They soon learned that my sloppy promises were a definite “no.”
Some other examples that we hear in our workplace requests:
- “I’ll see if I can fit it into my schedule.”
- “Let me see what I can do about it.”
- “Leave it with me. We’ll give it a good try.”
- “I’ll try.”
What do we do with sloppy promises?
- Greater clarity is required to find out if these are acceptances. Keep asking if they’re saying “yes” and committing to this course of action
- Depending on the degree of trust in the relationships, in the absence of a definite commitment, you are strongly advised to listen to these responses as declines
- By listening to an acceptance when we did not get one, we build an anticipation about the future and set ourselves up for failure, just like Joe did.
- We feel let down, irritated, frustrated, yet we rarely consider that we have contributed to this feeling by how we listened or even made a vague or sloppy request.
By beginning to pay attention to the requests you make and receive as well as the commitment you’re making when you accept a request, you’ll begin to reduce breakdowns that occur too often because of this linguistic malfunction. Remember that effective leadership and leadership presence is partially built on the precision of your use of language.
© Geoff Davis, 12/21/18