How to Get Someone to Do Something You Need That Isn’t Important to Him

Imagine you’re on a deadline that’s important to you. The project might not qualify as “mission critical” to the rest of the organization, but it’s certainly essential for your own team. So far, so… ordinary.

Now you run into a road block: a task wherein you need input from someone from another department, or where you need the other person to actively do something. For example, you might be working on a new advertising campaign, but you need somebody in Legal to sign off on it. Or you can’t go any further on writing the quarterly report until you get spreadsheets from someone in Accounting and performance statistics from Engineering. You can’t complete your project plan without it.

The process works fine when your contact in the other department is motivated to help you get the work done. But what happens when he isn’t? Sometimes, your request is a distraction to the other person’s business goal. This can be for many reasons, from self-interest (“You aren’t an item on my  performance review!”) to politics (“Your department competes with mine, so why should I make you look good?”) to simple overwork (“I’d love to help, but I’m already behind on the stuff I have to do. You’ve got to wait; how’s November sound?”) – and probably many more. This happens entirely too often, doesn’t it?

Ideally, you’ve already created alliances across the organization, so that your colleagues want to help you. Sometimes that isn’t the case (though perhaps this situation will teach you to think ahead next time!).

So, I asked several people what they found to be effective in getting someone to help them with a project task. Here’s the best advice I heard.

Ask in person

Hit their desk. Ask for help in person. It’s difficult to turn down a request from someone who is standing in front of you.

“I would make the request politely,” one friend told me. “Then I would show up in person the next day, with a big grin and happy expectations all over my face. When the person said the task wasn’t done, my smile would collapse. I’d stare at my shoes, look really crestfallen, and plead that I really need it and please can they do it and what can I do to help them get it done. I’d try to get them to say something (anything) that I could do to help them get my request done. If they said something, I’d do it immediately.”

“Either way,” she said, “I’d be back the next day with the same routine. I guess that was kind of being a pain, but it usually sped up the process.”

Note the elements here: Approach the request as a plea for help (not a demand). Ask how the problem can be solved. Offer to assist in achieving the solution.

Most people are nice and they do want to help, especially when the request is personal. If they don’t… Well, my friend had a response for that, too. She’d ask the individual, “If you’re too busy, can someone else in your department do it? Like, say [name of his boss]?”…while pretending not to know he’s the individual’s boss.

Do a favor that helps your colleague.

Or, depending on your cynicism level, call it: Bribe them.

For us sensitive-new-age types who think of this as “give to get,” the premise is that you ask your colleague how you can help her. If you offer to share your expertise, area of knowledge, access to resources, the individual will recognize that you’re trying to save her time on her regular tasks; that frees up her time (as a groovy hippie I’d say “energy”) to devote to you. Or at least she’ll listen more carefully when you pursue a line of inquiry like, “Can you help me understand…” or, “I need to find this-or-that.”

“I offer a reciprocation for their assistance,” explains Jason Whitt at Geek Powered Studios. “Maybe I’ll help them with something they need. Or perhaps to show my appreciation, I’ll buy them lunch one day. The key for me is making sure that the person I’m making a request from feels like I appreciate the time they’re giving me.”

Make it easy to help you.

You’re already asking someone to do something that’s a distraction from their own tasks. So it behooves you to minimize the work the individual has to do.

“Instead of dumping the whole thing on someone, structure your request so they have to do as little as possible,” says Heather Stagl, author of 99 Ways to Influence Change and coach for Organizational Change Agents at Enclaria.

One option is to step back from asking the colleague to do the task; rather, ask for enough information that you can do it yourself.

“Approach it as if you are gathering valuable information from them, and you are not asking them to do the work,” advises business and career coach Laura Lee Rose. “Share your current situation, and ask their advice on how to go about accomplishing it. Ask them what they think your next step should be.” People often give their opinions and advice freely, Rose points out; take advantage of this human trait.

But be prepared to do the work, with the information and advice that your colleague gives you. “This may mean that you create the spreadsheet with their information. Or that you do the research from the links and pointers that they give you,” Rose suggests. The important point is: “Do everything that you can possibly do to reduce their effort and time.”

And, I think privately to myself, there’s always the chance that the colleague will respond, “Aw, let me just take care of it for you. It’ll be faster.”

Whatever you do, Rose says, “Approach the topics with an appreciation of their time, their talent and their experience. Treat them as special. Realize that they are in the best at what they do and therefore are much in demand.”

Get their buy-in on helping the company.

If the person works at the same company as you do (as opposed to, say, an outside contractor), at some level he should be aware that the organization benefits (in revenue or some other measure) by the successful completion of this project. That is, establish the value to the individual of what you are doing. Ultimately, your project should result in financial gain for the company in some way; communicate that as something valuable to the co-worker.

Tell the individual why he’s the expert you need, with appreciation and respect. “The goal is to approach your colleague with patience and understanding, and a little bit of flattery,” says freelance journalist Danny Groner. “Don’t make them feel like they are being manipulated, however. Something like, ‘I wanted to call on your expert eye for graphic design for a project I’m working on. Do you have a moment?’” Then the individual won’t feel like he’s doing you a favor; rather, he’ll recognize that he is the best person to chime in the subject at hand.

The respect is more than words. Respect the colleague’s time, too. “Give people a heads up ahead of time – even if it’s just an hour – especially if it’s a big project,” says Groner. “Drop the idea ahead of time with a brief overview of the project and why they’ll be the best person to assist with it…. Sneaking up on people can be a jarring experience for the recipient.”

To get buy-in, it may help to show the value of helping you with your project – both personally and as a member of the organization. “Are there other people in the organization that are helping you with your project? Point it out to use the concept of ‘social proof,’” suggests Stagl.

Establish the urgency, too: Clarify what will happen if this doesn’t get done. “What is the impact on them, on the business, on you?” Stagl adds.

And go for personal self interest: Mention your intent to tell his boss how cooperative she was in getting your project completed. (Don’t forget to follow through.)

If all else fails, of course: Bring in the chocolate. Bake brownies. People are willing to do amazing things for food.

Check out Part I: Building Alliances at Work – Getting Help Before You Need It













Esther Schindler

Esther Schindler has been writing about computers and business topics since the early 1990s. You’ve seen Esther’s byline in prominent IT publications, such as CIO.com, IT World, and IEEE Spectrum. Her name is on the cover of about a dozen books, including most recently The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Twitter Marketing. You can follow her on Twitter @estherschindler and circle her on Google+, where she will keep you up to date on software trends, her cats, and baseball shenanigans.

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