Think about the last time your boss asked you to do something. If they acknowledged you were busy but said they would be grateful for a hand with something, you may have been happy to lend a hand. But if they “needed you to do” something – no questions asked – you may have felt a little irked.
Knowing how to communicate requests is important when it comes to getting things done. Often, though, we give little thought to how we frame requests or favours, particularly in moments of urgency. However, choosing the wrong words can put a strain on relationships with employees and colleagues, with negative consequences.
If you’re a people person and are naturally persuasive, you may find it easy to ask people to do things for you at work. For others, it doesn’t come so easily. Luckily, there are steps you can take to frame an ask that will get a better response.
Give the person an option
The “But You Are Free” technique is a simple approach that can significantly improve the chances of someone agreeing to a request. It involves emphasising someone’s free choice by adding phrases along the lines of “but it is up to you” or “there is no pressure to say yes.”
Essentially, you are reaffirming the person’s freedom to choose and respecting their autonomy. This method of persuasion is about helping other people come to the decision you want through their own free will.
There is probably a reason why you’re asking someone to do you a favour. It might be that you didn’t manage your time all that well, so you’re struggling to get things done and need some help. Perhaps you forgot about a task until it was too late. Whatever the reason, being honest with the person you are asking may make them more inclined to lend a hand.
Don’t abuse your power
When employees hear “I need you to” instead of “can you”, it emphasises a power imbalance. And while there may be a clear hierarchy, reminding someone of their lower place is unlikely to do you any favours. Essentially, it is a rigid way of framing a request that can be unpleasant for an employee, particularly if they already have a heavy workload.
“I need” is also a statement that is focused solely on your own purposes. To motivate people to fulfill your request, it’s better to make it clear how doing so helps the business and not just you personally.
Being polite when asking a colleague or employee to do something should be obvious, but rudeness appears to be a growing problem in the workplace. In 2018, University of Central Florida academic Shannon G. Taylor conducted to determine the extent of workplace incivility from the viewpoint of employee relationships.
The researchers gave workers at a chain of casual dining restaurants in the Southeastern US a survey and asked them to report how frequently they experienced rudeness over the previous year, on a scale from “never” to “very frequently.” The results found that 69% of employees reported experiencing some incivility in the previous year. However, the results indicated that these experiences of rudeness came from just a few coworkers.
The impact of being rude should not be underestimated. In fact, has suggested that rudeness is even contagious, like the common cold. Communicating a request politely goes beyond remembering to say “please.” It’s also important to think about the time and place, too. For example, if someone is on a phone call, wait until afterwards instead of interrupting them. If it’s urgent, attract their attention in a discreet way, so they know they are needed.
Ask in person
When you need a favour, there's nothing more convenient than firing off an e-mail or a message on Slack. However, research suggests that asking someone to do something in person is more likely to garner a positive result. Although this may not be possible for home-workers at the moment, it’s still worth bearing in mind.
In two studies, participants asked strangers to comply with requests either face-to-face or over email. More than 70% of people approached in person complied, but among those who received emails, the response rate was just 2%.
“If people want to have more effective e-mail messages, they have to include more personal information to facilitate building initial trust,” says Mahdi Roghanizad, a business professor at Western University in Ontario, Canada, who co-wrote the paper. “When a friend comes to you and asks in person, it means they are in serious need or respect you enough to pay a visit.”