A few weeks ago, I wrote a column called “The art and science of ‘I don’t know,’” in which I outlined my thoughts on why it was so hard for many IT managers to say those three simple words. It seemed to hit a chord, for many of you posted comments in our Discussion Center about your experiences regarding “I don’t know.”
To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. We’re talking about why so many IT managers with a demanding workload find it difficult to ask for help. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner’s Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.
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This week, I’m taking up another situation that all too many of us seem to have problems handling properly. Judging by some of the polls and surveys we’ve done lately, it’s clear that IT professionals are working a ton of hours. In fact, one recent TechRepublic poll showed that over 70 percent of you have had to cancel or reschedule a vacation due to work demands.

Figure A
It’s hard for many of you to get away.

So you’re overworked and understaffed. More projects are being added, and current projects are being changed midstream. With all the demands on your time and attention, why is it so hard to ask for a favor?

Marathon men and women?
When I say that it’s difficult for technical managers to ask for a favor, I mean two things. First, many people are simply reluctant to ask for help of any kind, evidently viewing management as a kind of Ironman Triathlon, except that you wear khakis and a polo shirt instead of a T-shirt and spandex bike shorts.

You have to feel sorry for these folks, but their folly will eventually catch up with them. If there’s one thing the last decade has taught us, it’s that technology not only permits collaboration, but it also demands it. You simply can’t do it alone anymore, even if you wanted to.

Tips for effective favor solicitation
In this article, however, I’m concentrating on something else. Judging from a lot of the IT managers I talk with, many folks want to ask for a favor, but they just aren’t very good at it. Here are some things to keep in mind when asking for assistance:

  • If you’re going to ask for a favor, ask for it. By definition, if you’re asking someone for a favor, you’re imposing on them. At least have the courage to ask and not beat around the bush, hoping the other party will volunteer.
    Some folks are even more disingenuous. Back when I worked in the telecom industry, I was promoted to senior management at a regional long-distance carrier. During my first week at the new job, after our weekly strategy meeting, the president came up to me and said how impressed he was with some point I had made during the meeting and wondered if I would like to have lunch with him and discuss it further. As you might expect, his appeal to my vanity was entirely successful, and I canceled my existing lunch plans to join him. As we walked out to the parking lot, he said casually, “Why don’t you drive? As a matter of fact, after lunch, we can swing by and pick up my car from the shop.”
    Can you imagine? Rather than simply asking for a favor (me dropping him off to pick up his car), he invented a bogus lunch meeting just so he had a driver. As you might imagine, I lost any respect I had for him during that lunch, which was one of those sit-here-while-I-spend-20-minutes-on-my-cell-phone deals.
  • Acknowledge that it is a favor. This is related to the first point. Don’t pretend that what you’re asking the other person to do is not going to result in extra work, whether trivial or substantial.
  • If it’s not optional, it’s not a favor. This is crucial. A favor is something that a person can either do or not do. If you’re not giving the other person the opportunity to decline the extra work, you’re not really asking for a favor—you’re giving them more work. There is a big difference between saying, “I need you to pick up Danny’s work orders next week while he’s on vacation” and “Can you do me a favor and pick up Danny’s work orders next week while he’s on vacation?” In the first case, you’re assigning extra work to one of your people. After all, as a manager, that’s your job. In the second case, you’re asking one of your people to agree to pick up some extra work. Don’t ask them to agree if they don’t really have a choice—it’s not fair to the employee. You’re pretending that the employee has latitude that he or she doesn’t really have.
  • A favor doesn’t last forever. By its very nature, a favor has a limited life span. If you’re asking someone to permanently pick up an extra assignment, that’s not a favor but a change in job description. That’s entirely different than asking someone to fill in for you at a meeting, for example.
  • If it’s personal, emphasize that “no” is OK. IT managers have a special responsibility to make it clear that a favor can be denied, if it’s a personal request. Many employees feel a certain amount of pressure to agree to such requests—you need to be very up-front that if it’s not convenient for the employee, you can make other arrangements.

Why this matters
Why all this focus on the proper way to ask for a favor? It seems clear that no matter how busy you are now, the coming year will be even busier. Chances are, you’ll have to ask your staff to pick up more work, on both a temporary and permanent basis. How you approach that task will affect how they respond.
What methods do you use when your workload becomes overwhelming? Send me an e-mail or post a comment to this article.