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Do you ever have to rely on your manager to make a decision but they don’t have the same sense of urgency as you? Whether it’s your direct supervisor or other leaders in the organization, we regularly depend on other people. Since we often don’t have positional power over those people, we’re left trying to influence them without authority. It’s one of the great frustrations, resulting in missed deadlines, increased stress, and strained relationships.
So, what are some options?
Let’s say you need a sign-off on a document in order to proceed with an initiative. Let us also say you allocated eight days for your supervisor to review the document and provide their sign-off. To raise the stakes, imagine this sign-off is on your initiative’s critical path, which means if it takes longer, it delays your initiative.
Here’s how I used to deal with this situation. I would write to my manager to say something along the lines of “Please! I need you to sign off on this document! It’s really, really important! I need this quickly!”
Sometimes it worked, but often I was stuck waiting for the sign-off. The clock keeps ticking, delaying my project while the supervisor drags their feet.
That was old Andy. New Andy does it this way: “Here’s the document for your review and approval. You don’t need to get back to me today — we have allocated eight days to the task. However, I need to let you know that it is on the critical path, which means if it takes you nine days, the project will slip by a day. Can you sign-off in eight days? (pause)”
How would you characterize old Andy from new Andy?
The first approach communicated urgency, which can be good. But it dripped with emotion. It was just another crisis. In retrospect, it probably felt to others like the cliché “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part!” It’s like the person who uses high priority on every e-mail. What happens when every email comes with a red exclamation point in the inbox? It becomes invisible, right?
The same could be said for my first approach. Others could easily respond: “It’s just another day with Kaufman’s hair on fire. Get in line.”
Contrast that to the second approach. There’s a sense of urgency, for sure, but it also communicates the consequences of inaction. That’s not a small point.
Many people, on a practical basis, start their week trying to put out the biggest fires. Hopefully, by the end of the week, even the smallest fires are out. Regardless, communicating urgency without the consequences of inaction is not as effective.
Calling out a potential delay in the initiative is not a threat, especially if you are careful with your vocal tone and body language. But the delay is a real potential if they don’t take action so make it clear.
What about that last question: “Can you hit eight days? (pause)”
This comes from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s research on influence. He relates the story of Gordon Sinclair, the owner of a prominent Chicago restaurant. When guests would call for reservations, his receptionists would typically end the conversation by saying something along the lines of, “OK, we have you down for a party of two on Saturday night at 19:30. Please call if you have to change your plans.”
Seems reasonable. But approximately 30 percent of those people never showed up on Saturday evening, and they didn’t call. In the restaurant business, that can add up to real money.
Sinclair proposed a slight change to the script. His receptionists began ending the call like this, “OK, we have you down for a party of two on Saturday night at 19:30. By the way, will you please call us if you have to change your plans?” Pause.
How would you respond if a restaurant asked you that question? They weren’t asking for a credit card number, phone number, or first-born child! They just asked a simple question, “Will you call?”
Most people would reply, “Sure!”
The result? Their no-shows without a call dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent.
Could it be that we don’t ask for a commitment often enough? This might be less of an issue when we’re the boss. But what if we’re depending on a supervisor, peer, or someone higher in the organization? Could it be that we too often back away from asking for a commitment?
I think so. Start asking for the commitment. And pause to wait for the response.
In our sign-off example, what are the three possible answers to the question, “Can you hit eight days?”
Yes. No. Maybe.
If they say Yes, Cialdini’s research suggests they’re more likely compelled to finish the work on time, especially when that commitment is made publicly.
What if they reply with a No? At the very least, you benefit by knowing about the situation now instead of eight days from now. You can ask questions, such as “What’s getting in the way of hitting that date? What would it take to turn this to a Yes?”
Since their inability to commit will delay the project, you may need to escalate the issue to a project sponsor or governance committee. Before you do that, consider asking, “Since I have to escalate this as a delay, would you like to join me in the status update?” or “Is there anything I should be requesting for you when I present this to the sponsor?”
Dr. Allan Cohen suggests you should never blindside someone with an escalation—especially your supervisor. Always give them a warning first.
What if they reply Maybe? I suggest that Maybe is the same as No. Ask the same questions to see if you can turn it to a Yes.
It gets a bit trickier if they reply with Maybe’s more optimistic cousin Probably. In this case, you might want to set a tripwire, say, three days into the task. If they’re on track at that point, you can keep the date as scheduled. But if they’re behind by that point, it trips an escalation.
Since learning this principle, I’ve used it with colleagues and customers with great success. I can assure you my children hate it! Sales professionals understand: Ask for the sale. For the rest of us, when you’re depending on someone to deliver their task—even if it’s our boss—ask for a commitment.
I teach on this and more in the United Nations System Staff College’s UN Emerging e-Learning Programme “Managing Up” session. Join us for the next edition to learn new leadership traits that can help you bring out the best in yourself and those you work with.