You’re Asking Me to Do Something?

Shawna has been a senior manager in a state government agency for years, and confessed that the people in her department seem to ignore many of their assignments and her requests for them to produce results. “In fact, it seems like they don’t even hear me.” She was right: they weren’t listening.

“They don’t take deadlines seriously because we have all these interruptions that change priorities,” Shawna explained. “We get special requests from the Director, and sometimes from the Governor’s office or from outside agencies. Those have to be handled right away, so other things get moved back. Deadlines don’t matter when the Big Bosses want something.”

Shawna read “The Four Conversations”, and learned that she needed to practice making better requests. She started with her immediate staff, and made an interesting discovery: they didn’t grasp the fact that she was asking them to commit to something.

“They listened to me as if I was explaining my ideas to them,” she admitted. “They didn’t seem to realize that I was giving them an assignment.”

She followed up with Jerald, a Team Leader a few days later. “I asked him if he had that summary I asked him to prepare,” she said. “He looked surprised, and said he didn’t have it. Then he asked when I wanted it, as if I had never told him the due date.”

In a workplace where missing deadlines is so common, many people don’t even hear the specifics of an assignment, or even notice that something IS an assignment.  Another Team Leader explained in a focus group a week later, “We just work on what we can, whenever we have time. When everything is a priority, nothing is really a priority, so we just do whatever is on our desk in the order we think is right.”

Shawna realized that, in order to turn this around, she was going to have to be much clearer than she had expected. “Now,” she said, “I start giving an assignment by saying “I am giving you an assignment”, and then I say What they should produce, When they need to have it complete, and Why it is important to me personally. I’m much more emphatic about those “three W’s”.”

It would be nice if we didn’t have to work so hard to make a clean request, but if the current culture is one of “do what you can whenever you have time”, ordinary instructions will not be heard against the background noise. Taking time to form the request is ultimately a real time-saver.

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