Making Smart Requests

Posted Thursday, August 2, 2012

By Dr. Allen Slade, ACC

Leaders use requests to trigger action. As Chalmers Brothers says:

We make requests when we have an assessment that the future is going to unfold in a certain way, and we don’t like that. We want the future to unfold in a different way than it seems to be heading by itself, and in order to put things in action to bring this about, we make a request.

Effective requests require discipline by the leader in how the request is made and what answers the leader will accept. In another post, we will think about what answers a leader should accept for a request. But today, let’s look at how to phrase your requests for more influence.

Here’s the bottom line: If your requests don’t trigger the action you want, try making your requests SMART – specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time bound.

Specific – the request states a specific behavior or outcome to be achieved. To get more action, our request for better responsiveness could be phrased as “I would like all customer voice mails to be answered promptly.” This request defines the desired behavior more specifically.

Measurable – As with smart goals, we value what we measure and measure what we value. A request that cannot be measured will have less impact.

Actionable – the request can be acted on by the person who receives the request.

Realistic – the request can be actually met. An actionable and realistic request is something the other party can reasonably commit to fulfilling.

Time-bound – the request should have clear timing, usually either in the form of a rate of accomplishment or a deadline. A rate of accomplishment might be “I would like to have you contact 10 customers a week for feedback.” A deadline might be “I would like each person in the support team to answer all their voice mails by the end of the day they are received.”

Be specific about who will achieve the outcome. “I would like us to answer all customer e-mails promptly” implies that the you will do some or all of the answering. “I would like you to answer all customer emails promptly” makes the responsibility more specific. The difference between “us” and “you” is an example of diffusion of responsibility. In making a request, be specific about who will act. Diffusion of responsibility increases with group size , so the leader making a request to a group needs to be even more clear in targeting the request.

Make all of your requests actionable and realistic. Unreasonable requests can undermine your credibility and alienate your audience. It does not matter how reasonable you think your request is – the key is whether the person receiving the request believes they can realistically take action to accomplish what you ask. Keep your ears and eyes open to see how your request lands with the other person. Adjust your request – timing or quantity – or negotiate additional resources to help the other person expect to be able to do what you ask.

Even a smart request can fail if you give the other person a ready excuse for ignoring your request. In general, a request has more power when it stands alone. A stand-alone request takes courage, especially in allowing the request to echo in silence. Leaders need to exercise courage, and often that means using a powerful request and waiting for the other party to respond.

How smart do your requests need to be? Smart enough to accomplish your purposes. If you make a vague request and it triggers the action you want, great! No need to tinker with success. On the other hand, if your requests are not working, try making them smarter. You may not always get the action you want, but you increase the odds with a smart request.

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