Why is it that leaders don’t get what they really want or need from their teams? Go ahead, think about this for a moment …
Some leaders blame this on their team members, on ineffective processes or systems, on team structure or accountability charts, or on missing technology or skillsets. And on occasions, they might be correct.
For most people though, they aren’t getting what they want or need from their teams because of one of a few reasons:
- They don’t know exactly what they want
- They don’t know who to ask for it
- They don’t know how to ask for it
The third reason is where the majority of high-achieving leaders fall short. An effective request can mean the difference between a smoothly running, creative, high-performing team and one whose team members are operating on completely different channels. Unclear requests lead to unmet expectations.
Unclear Requests Lead to Unmet Expectations
I worked with a CEO – we’ll call him Larry – who was routinely frustrated with how irresponsible, unaccountable, and “lazy” the people in his organization were, in particular his direct reports who were all executive leaders. Overdue deliverables, reports in the wrong format, the wrong people involved, and the wrong projects prioritized were among his chief complaints. When we first started working together, it sounded like he needed to clean house and re-staff his organization of 300+ from the ground up.
Then I did an in-depth 360-degree report for him, and it turned out that his staff was equally as frustrated with him. He had extremely high expectations, which was not their complaint — these were all hardworking, high-achievers who could handle bold goals and high pressure. The problem was that he was not communicating his expectations to anyone, and instead, assuming the team would read between the lines.
For example, on one occasion, Larry called his CTO, Jeff, into his office to tell him he needed a progress report for the BOD A.S.A.P. In our interview, Jeff informed me that he got the ball rolling that same day with his 11 different product and technology department leads to gather progress updates, roadmaps, and accomplishments across divisions so he could put together a report for his boss. His definition of A.S.A.P. was the following Monday.
The next morning, Larry was furious that he did not have that report on his desk. “Did Jeff not hear the message that this request was A.S.A.P.?” He was irritated, frustrated, stressed – and he was pointing his finger at the wrong culprit. He had not communicated his definition of A.S.A.P., which for him meant he expected the report by the following morning. He told me that his voice conveyed the urgency and the CTO should have known better. Larry and Jeff were both flabbergasted for different reasons. The three of us discussed this situation openly and even laughed about where the assumptions were being made and how they impacted the outcome, but the whole situation could have been easily avoided. And this was just one example of many times Larry failed to make an effective request.
Unclear requests lead to unmet expectations.
The unclear requests Larry had a habit of making led to frustration throughout the organization – among his staff for getting the blame and “falling short,” and his own frustration of his expectations being consistently unmet. He was creating an entire culture of frustration by simply missing some key ingredients in his requests … and he almost fired his whole team for this recurring problem.
The good news was that I could see – from my objective, outside standpoint – that the problem was easy to address and the solution would be broadly impactful. The cause was not lack of willingness to work hard, as Larry had assumed, nor was it a missing skillset or organizational structure. The problem was that Larry had a habit of making ineffective, unproductive requests. Simply revealing this root cause to Larry and helping him learn new and healthy communication habits would have far-reaching rewards.
What Is a Request?
A request is an effort to make something happen that wouldn’t normally happen, or to exercise some power to influence the future in some way. An effective request makes sure that effort is fruitful and generative, and is one that leaves no room for interpretation – both parties are crystal clear on the what, why, who, when, and how.
The Pillars of an Effective Request
These guidelines for making a productive, effective request are going to seem basic when you read about the different elements. However, when I work with leaders on this, most realize pretty quickly that the majority of the time they aren’t getting what they want, need, or expect because their requests are incomplete – they didn’t ask in a clear way. The basics are simply not in place.
Unclear requests lead to unmet expectations.
Here are the fundamentals to consider so you can ensure your requests are effective:
1. Committed Speaker
If you want to leave no room for interpretation, you must be 100% present when you make a request of someone else. Committed speakers put their entire bodies and all of their attention into the request and take any action needed to generate a committed listener.
- Quick Tip: Make sure you not multi-tasking or your attention is not divided in any way. This includes texting, driving, scrolling social media, emailing, and even mind-wandering.
2. Committed Listener
In order for a request to turn into a commitment and expectations to be agreed on, the listener must also be present and undistracted. It is up to the requester to notice whether or not the listener is present. When you make a request of someone else:
- Are they present?
- Are they in the middle of something?
- Do you have their complete attention?
- Quick Tip: Avoid drive-by requests at all costs. These are the highly ineffective requests, where someone sees you in passing and asks you to do something … but they didn’t have time to wait for your answer. We’ve probably all been on both sides of that kind of moment, where there wasn’t room or time for a response or commitment. What follows these types of requests can be really frustrating.
3. Future Action
This element is simple. You must have some sort of genuine need in order to make a request. The “what.”
4. Conditions of Satisfaction
This is the most commonly missed element. In order for a request to be productive, the requester and listener must have a shared understanding of what it is that needs to be done, and to what standards. There is no such thing as a shared commitment without a shared understanding of what the future action is.
This is so often where a breakdown occurs. One person makes an assumption – they assume the other person knows exactly what they want – and the other person is unaware of the specifics, but commits anyway. Take Larry, from the above scenario. In another example, Larry asks his head of HR, Barbara, for a report for the all-hands meeting, but didn’t mention what format he needed in, which report it was, how in-depth it needed to be, or even what color or font it should be in if these details are important. If Barbara were to assume all of these factors and decide them for herself, yet Larry has a clear expectation of what this report should look like and include, he is setting himself up for disappointment. Barbara ends up spending hours on a report in Powerpoint with fancy graphics and speaking notes, when all Larry needed was an excel document including specific metrics, which were missing.
- Is there a background of obviousness? If you cannot be 100% sure that the answer is yes, outline your conditions of satisfaction in specific and clear terms. Leave no room for interpretation.
- What are the standards you are expecting and how can you communicate them more clearly? Even if it seems like a small detail, sometimes that small missing detail can be impactful to the outcome.
Timeframe is technically a condition of satisfaction, but warrants its own checklist item because people have very different definitions and understandings of urgency, and so there is often room for interpretation here.
If not 100 percent obvious, then state your expectation for the timeline clearly. In Larry’s case above, he asked Jeff to get him a report and assumed Jeff understood that he needed it immediately. His definition of A.S.A.P. was different than Jeff’s but he assumed a shared understanding. When Larry didn’t receive the report the following day, he was furious and asked Jeff why he didn’t have it ready. Jeff responded that he was planning to get it over by Monday morning. What was missing here? Who is to blame?
Different people have different senses of urgency, and varied definitions, interpretations, and assumptions of time. Best to get on the same time zone before a commitment is made.
The right conversation – with all of the specific effective request elements present – that takes place in the wrong mood is actually the wrong conversation. You have to take into account your mood and the listener’s mood, and notice if the timing is right.
Check yourself to be sure you are centered before making a request. Make sure you or the other person isn’t overly stressed, distracted, or concerned about something else before asking them to commit to something. You wouldn’t want to ask your head of IT to fix your mouse glitch right after he got a daunting health diagnosis, for example.
Why should the person care about this? What’s the overarching goal? How will this person be supporting the team, organization, and vision by agreeing to your request? Share the background and intention so the person has the bigger picture.
8. Supposition of Competence
This is also a big point of breakdown. The listener must know how to do the thing you are requesting, must be dependable, and must have the time to do it.
How can you ensure they know how to do what you’re asking? You might know their level of competence, you might not, and you might think you know but don’t. It is a mistake to assume.
- A Note of Caution: Sometimes, particularly people pleasers, want to know how or want to appear to know, even when they don’t. Alternatively, you may think your request is an easy, five-minute ask, when, if the person has never done it before, it may be a really big, time-consuming thing you’re asking.
- Quick Tip: Make sure to find out answers to the following questions:
- Does this person know how to do the thing you’re asking them to do?
- Is this person reliable?
- Does this person have the time to deliver by your deadline?
9. Optimal Communication Channel or Format
Are you going to make your request over a text message? Will you call them to ask? Will you request in person? By email? You have to take into account the communication channel that best suits the person and nature of the request to make sure the request lands in the intended way, and that the tone or importance is not left open to interpretation. If you choose to make your request digitally, after how many threads do you pick up the phone, if a clear agreement has not been reached?
Not all requests are created equal.
Unclear requests lead to unmet expectations.
When You Fail to Make a Request
I would be remiss if I did not mention the multitude of instances I have witnessed clients have expectations of their people, without ever having made any kind of request (even an incomplete one). There are many reasons why senior leaders avoid making requests in the first place, among the top reasons is assuming your expectation is known, or thinking, “I shouldn’t have to ask. This person should know …” I have hundreds of examples of this breeding resentment and sabotaging relationships and teams. Avoid this by making your expectations known.
Bottom Line on Effective Requests
Taking a few extra beats to ensure that you have considered and included all of these nine elements of an effective request can save you time, frustration, and resources in the long term. Getting in this habit will also help you build deeper relationships, higher trust on your teams, and stronger results. Plus, it typically only costs you a few minutes in the short-term.
Ultimately, it’s all about results. If you are getting the results you want and need by making ambiguous requests, by all means, keep doing what you’re doing. However, that’s not usually the case.
Exercise: Practicing Making Effective Requests
- Write down five requests that you haven’t made but know you should. These may be requests you have been avoiding, asks that would make your life easier, or even requests you need to make again because they were too vague or your expectations were not met.
- Outline the nine specific elements of each of your five requests.
- Write down a date for when you will make each request and add it to your calendar.
*This article is inspired by the teachings from Newfield Network and Chalmers Brothers’ book, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness.
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