Yesterday I was working from home, as I mostly do on a Monday. It was a busy day, but not so densely packed that I didn’t have time to take in some fresh air at lunch time. In fact, I did something that I have recently taken to doing and wandered the length of Lewisham’s market stalls – just two minutes from home – to ask the stall holders if any of them had any waste products that could go into my compost bin.
In recent weeks I have learnt just how willingly the local stall holders give the gift of their green waste which otherwise goes into the immense bins provided by our local council for disposal elsewhere. Yesterday I even had advice from one stall holder – let us know in the morning or the day before that you’ll be coming to collect and we’ll save it for you.
I would add that, as the recipient of this largesse I am delighted. It’s not just that I hope, quite soon, to have the best fed worms in the whole of South East London and, in time, a steady supply of compost to improve the soil in my garden. It’s not even because, until recently, I hadn’t thought to ask. It’s also because, at a young age, I somehow learnt “not to put people to any trouble” by making a request. I still have to remind myself that that was then and this is now as part of my preparation for making a request. And yes, because it’s a request I am learning joyfully to accept a yes or a no.
I know I am not alone. I invite you to take a moment to ask yourself how often and how openly, you – and others in your organisation – make requests. And I do mean a request – an open question of someone who might be able to help you and with the option for the person you are asking to respond with a yes or no. I also invite you to reflect on how willingly you and those you lead own the personal needs that sit behind the request. This is the difference, for example, between saying could we meet at 4pm so that I can get away by 5.30pm to support my partner at home and saying actually, I’m not available at 6pm or maybe even meeting your boss at 6pm and adding it as just one more example to stoke the fire of slow-burning resentment and ill health.
Because yes, there are things that people do to avoid making requests – because to make a request is often to share information about our needs and to open ourselves up to a no and to all the meanings we make of that no. Making requests can leave us feeling oddly vulnerable, even when we have managed to persuade ourselves that it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
What do we do instead? Here are just a few examples. They all come with a price. Which ones are prevalent in your organisation?
- Ask a quasi request (“Make sure you check the report before you send it off, will you?”). The substance of the request is vague, the language is part instruction, part request. We haven’t asked the person of whom we’re making the request if they can do what we ask;
- Assume that any half decent member of staff will know what to do and feel angry when they don’t deliver. (In many organisations staff think this way about their colleagues and even their boss. In senior leadership roles, we set the tone);
- Wrap up a request, for example by assigning the need for the request to the organisation rather than honestly reflecting on and sharing our own needs. Especially when we are in senior roles, this can make it hard for people to say no, though it may lead to all sorts of problems – including a kind of thoughtless obedience or quiet disobedience (yes minister style);
- Tell ourselves that someone wouldn’t cope or would do their nut (or similar) if we made a request. This is a great get-out clause – it may be true and, even so, it may mask a more personal reason why we are not making requests.
The approach people have to making requests in your organisation is part of organisational culture and it has significant implications for your organisation’s ability to achieve its aims. I invite you to a seven-day curiosity exercise – just take time to notice the culture in your organisation around making requests.