I spent the weekend with my niece. She’s 18 months old and amazing: opinionated and especially verbal for her age. She lets you know exactly what she wants. We were at a mall on a rainy Saturday she wanted to ride the bright-red fire trucks in the shopping mall. Normally I’m all for fire-truck rides but she was really tired by the time we saw the trucks and I wanted her to go home and take a nap.
As she pointed at the fire trucks and stared longingly at them I sensed the looming tantrum. Her face reminded me of the look a colleague once gave me. We were planning a fundraiser and the colleague had a list of important people who he was ready to research so he could chat them up at the event. He was anxious to tackle that task. I was excited for him to do that too, but I was more worried about the logistics of the event. I needed him to research some caterers before doing a deep dive on our attendees. I had to convice both my niece and my co-worker to do something they weren’t too excited about.
You might not think my niece is like a coworker. I’m the adult, so I’m in charge, right? Not necessarily. While technically I could just pick her up and carry her away from the fire trucks, I didn’t want to leave the mall with a child screaming at the top of her lungs and kicking me in the stomach. I need to convince her it was the best thing for us, just like I needed to convince my colleague he should reach out to the caterers.
So how do you avoid the landmines that pop up in these situations? The tactics that worked with my niece also worked with my colleague.
First, call the situation by it’s true name. In my niece’s case that meant acknowledging a few things: a) the fire truck she wanted to ride was in front of her and yes, it looked fun; b) I heard and acknowledged her request that she wanted to ride it; and c) we weren’t going to be able to do that right now. I didn’t pretend like the fire truck was broken. I didn’t tell her she was crazy for wanting to ride it. I told her I understood what was happening.
With my coworker I said I knew he was excited to interact with the big donors. I then pointed out the donors wouldn’t be in a good mood if they didn’t have the drinks the caterer would provide.
It’s important to state both the good and bad aspects of the current situation and not try to sweep any points or feelings under the rug.
So the next time you need to manage a colleague, start with naming what’s true. You can say something like: “I know I’m not your supervisor but I’d love your help on this project.” or “This is kind of awkward because we work together but I’d like you to do X.” Saying it shows you recognize your lack of authority or power and helps open up a dialogue between you and the person you’re trying to get to take action.
Second, state the why. In my niece’s case I next told her why we couldn’t ride the fire trucks right then. I said “We have to leave in five minutes to go home and take a nap. We don’t have time.” She stared at the red cart longingly but was also clearly tired. She didn’t jump up on agreement but she didn’t start screaming either.
With my colleague I said “I’m swamped with sending out mailings for the event, confirming the entertainment and making sure we have place settings. I’m too overwhelmed to check with caterers in time to book them for the event.
Saying why you are asking your colleague to do something makes the ask land more softly. When you have to do this at work try something like “Mr. Z asked me to get your help on this.” or “I think you can do this the fastest because you called the caterers for our last event.” Are you just in a bind and don’t think you can get it done without this person’s assistance? Own it. Don’t hide the reason you are asking for your peer’s help.
Providing reasoning makes your ask more understandable. If I had told my niece “Nope. We just can’t ride these trucks,” she would have been more confused and might have screamed, but a little bit of rationale can go a long way.
Finally, make your ask with confidence. This is obvious with children. If you are wishy-washy then kids will walk all over you. If I had said “I don’t know if we can ride the truck, let’s go look.” This would have gotten her hopes up and she would have been even more disappointed when I said no. I knew my answer was no so I said that clearly to her. “There’s no time to ride the fire truck right now.”
With my colleague, I said clearly “I really need someone to price check these three catering companies by Friday. Can you help me with that?”
Saying what you want done, how you’d like it done, and the timeline for doing it. If you’ve named the truth of the situation and explained your why your colleague will appreciate the clarity of the ask. He may still present some push back but that push back will become about the assignment and not about who has authority to ask someone to do what in your office.
So the next time you need to manage sideways, picture how you’d convince a two year-old to take a nap when she’s staring at some shiny red fire trucks. Call the situation by it’s true name, state the why and act with confidence.