Uncomfortable Conversation #3: Requesting Privileges, Staff Time or Resources You’re Not “Entitled” To Have

begging employee

This is NOT the way you want to ask.

The Situation:

Your Project needs resources from other teams, including staff time, technology resources and/or the ability to bypass normal approval procedures in order to advance your project.

Career Limiting Approaches (i.e. what not to do):

  • Hope someone will psychically divine that you need some additional resources.
  • Come up with a duct tape solution without even trying to ask for what you need. (Been there, done that, it’s never good!)
  • Threaten a senior executive with blackmail photos of their less than stellar moments at the corporate holiday party if they don’t give up the goods.
  • Send a younger staffer in with the request figuring if it all goes wrong you can disclaim any knowledge of the request. Definitely don’t try this with the interns, they will give you up almost immediately.

What you need to be prepared with:

1. Clear list of Needs: “I will need X hours of technology’s time in order to create the beta test of the new user interface.” “I will need the assistance of facilities to evaluate the projected space. Based on the usual timetable it will require 8 hours of their time.” “I need two members of the operations team to participate on weekly team calls which last for about two hours. They will also need to do some research after each call which we estimate as a total commitment of three hours per week.”

Do the research beforehand to find out the normal turn times that each resource would need. If you’re asking for financial resources, make sure  you have detailed bids (formal or informal, depending on where you work) that will give an accurate representation of the costs. “If you’re asking for expedited approval process for your other project requests, explain why you need the bypass.  You may want to commit these to paper if there are multiple asks. but make sure it is a clear visual, preferably one page, not a 300 page document.

2. The specifics of “why” you need the items in #1. Before you make this request, have another project team member punch holes in your request, to help you make it sharper, particularly if its a complex request. You need your “E.F. Hutton” or Historian for this job. Don’t know who they are? Read about them here.

3. The benefits of your project to any resources you are commandeering. Be sure to include these if they exist. For example: “Tech support gets 400 questions per month on this issue. We’re asking for their time commitment now which will free them up in the future.”

4. If you are requesting additional resources because of an earlier miscalculation on your part, acknowledge the miscalculation in clear, non-judgmental language. You may also want to read this first.

5. Avoid drama. Extreme language such as “There’s no way we can get this project done if I don’t get Joe’s team to cooperate and they aren’t cooperating.” isn’t going to help. Take emotion out of the request. Aim for a clear, objective tone.

6. What is your specific ask for support in terms of getting those resources? Do you need an email sent? Does your sponsor need to hold a meeting with the departments involved? Do you need an authorized signer ability for up to a certain amount?  Have a recommendation but be aware that a different path may be chosen. If there is a significant reason to choose a particular path, mention it in your ask.  But be sure to take the emotion out of it. “I feel that many of the department heads are bombarded with requests weekly for their resources, which is why I think it would be best to have an email coming from you authorizing the staff time” vs. “Look, ain’t no way, no how, that freaking product modeling team is going to help me unless the big cheese orders them to, because they would rather die than cooperate with anyone around here.”

7. Have a fallback plan. Some people will say to never waver off the big ask, but you may not have that luxury if a “no” means the end of your project. Is there an alternative scenario that gets you part of what you need, and will advance the project to a point where the benefit of getting the rest of what you need will be obvious?

8. Consider the “style” of your delivery. Watch your body language, project assurance. If you need some advice on the power of an open stance when asking for something check out this TED talk. If you need to consider the pacing, delivery style and words you choose, read this. Are you presenting to one person or a committee or a board? You’ll need to change your style to meet the situation. Whatever you do, don’t look like the guy in the picture. That’s an automatic “no.”

Having the Conversation:

1. Start with the compelling reason for your project in the first place. Don’t assume everyone knows why the project is in place. Even if they do, restate it. Give a very brief update on where you are in the project.

2. State your list of needs from item 1 above. State any benefits to the resources you are asking for.

3. Wait and keep quiet. (aka known in the negotiation biz as STFU).

4. They’ve got objections?  Use the information from item 2 to answer the questions.

What to expect:

1. Yes: Always great if you get a win the first time out. If you get one, make sure you send a brief, mini-update on the project’s progress on a regular basis to those who granted what you wanted and acknowledge their assistance in it.

2. A Punt. Person or committee you’re asking requests time to “study” the request. This may be their normal response or it may be a hedge or delaying tactic. Hopefully you know their style well enough to choose which option to do next:

a. Thank them and ask when you can expect to hear their decision.

b. Calmly restate the benefit of the project, touch on how the resources could help and ask if they have any concerns you haven’t addressed. Make sure you’re projecting assurance (see #8 above, again!) when you do this.

c. If your requestee is a chronic “waffler” by nature, and normally never commits in the hope that things will iron out on their own accord, you will need a different close. Try slightly reversing b.  “Joe, I know you’re concerned that the technology team is overloaded right now, but let me show you exactly how this will actually save them time within the next two months.” Pause a beat. “Joe, this is a good thing, and I need your commitment to make this into a great thing, and a great win for you.”

3. Denied. This is another time where you need to know your audience. Is the “no” coming from a situation that has nothing to do with you or your project? (Read “Why your Project isn’t Getting any Love” to help identify some reasons). Or is the no truly directed at, and solely about, you and/or your project? If so, ask again about concerns or objections, and try to address them. You then have two possibilities:

a. Ask about their overall commitment to this project, is it truly a resource crunch or lack of faith in the project? (Remember, take the emotion out of this question. You are solving a business problem here, not a referendum on your personal worth. And if the response is a referendum on your personal worth, i.e. they hate you, and not your project, read this and run!).

b. Offer the fallback position from #7 in the preparation section. Be sure to state if the fallback position will require narrowing the scope or results of your project.

 How have YOU successfully gotten results when you asked for something you or your team were not entitled to have? Please share in the comments section!  (and if involved sending the intern in with the office holiday pictures I  really don’t want to know, but I do salute you!)

Tim Ferris believes that “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” The Uncomfortable Conversations series on 52weekturnaround gives you the tools to have the difficult conversations that you encounter as a change agent. See the series here.

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Uncomfortable Conversation #1: “We need to shut down a business line”


Empty interior of building

Making the Tough Call isn’t Easy

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” Tim Ferris

The Situation:

Your team, after doing your research, running the numbers and looking at a challenge from every angle has come to the conclusion that a business line or project needs to be closed.  This will impact staff, facility leases, and even some customers who have come to rely on the services or products of that team.  You need to present the information to the Sr. Leadership team, two of whom made their careers by working in the very business you are proposing to close, and some of their protégé’s are working in that division right now.

What you wish would happen:

  1. Someone else would do this. Anyone else. Maybe that external auditor could suggest it.
  2. You could just drop the anonymous suggestion in a suggestion box.
  3. A recruiter would call you with the job of the century this morning so you could skip the conversation entirely.

Things to have with you:

  1. A clear, simple visual of financial projections that can be viewed at a glance, along with much more detailed information in a separate package. Graphs or charts are a good option for the overview.
  2. A plan showing the impact of keeping the line open, vs. the costs and impact of closing the line. Do one for best case, worst case and average scenarios for each option.  Be sure to incorporate your country’s or state’s requirements for staff reductions etc., in your projections (i.e. legal notice, severance. Also include the non-staff costs – leases, equipment etc).
  3. A clear proactive plan for notifying staff, customers and media (if applicable) along with a budget and timeline for the wind down effort.

Having “The Conversation”:

  1. Pick your spot. Don’t just slide it in during a random meeting or a regular staff meeting. This calls for a special meeting to just focus on this issue.
  2. Line up your sponsors beforehand.  This means having lots of one-on-one small, private meetings with discreet senior people to serve as advocates.  If everyone at the meeting is grappling with a new idea at once, the normal response would be to shoot it down or delay it.
  3. Expect that there will be delays.  Most executives will want to do a deep dive on your methodology and your numbers. (That’s what the supporting details in Item 1 of “things to have with you” are for.) However, make sure one of your exhibits shows the costs of delaying the decision by more than a month.
  4. Be sure to acknowledge the human costs involved as you discuss the topic. This is a fine balance; do not recount every detail of every family that will be affected (“Of course we’ll have to cut Mike Smith, and he’s the sole provider for his widowed mother, her six children and he has a disabled son at home”) but don’t go to the opposite extreme either, treating staff as widgets that need to be offloaded.  That will make people question your judgment. Suggest areas of opportunities for the people in the affected unit, by pointing out growing units that require similar skill sets or staffing. If there truly is no internal option, suggest an outplacement strategy.

What will happen next (most likely):

  1. Understand that once you have “dropped the bomb” you lose control of how the information is absorbed and acted upon. Don’t be so strongly wed to your proposal that you devalue attempts at compromise or restructuring. Simply stay firm, polite and open to input. Use your alternative case scenarios to help look at various options that may be proposed.
  2. Once the decision has been made, having the clear communications and action plan ready is imperative.  If you have executives who argue for delay, and it appears that even with delay, the company will have to cut the unit, you will want to point out that doing it sooner rather than later may allow the company to allot a greater amount of resources towards the displaced staff than waiting will.
  3. Take the heat. No matter who makes the final call, you and your team will eventually be “outed” as the architects of the plan. That means you’ll have some team members, even those who get to stay, looking at you in a different way.  Respond to inquiries with a firm, compassionate response and rehearse other team members as well. This is also not the time to upgrade to a better car (even if you’ve been saving forever for it) or take a long exotic vacation.  Low key empathy is the best response.

This post is part of our “Uncomfortable Conversations” series. Our next Uncomfortable Conversation: The project budget has cost overruns. Big Ones.

Have you ever been the “lucky” person who got to deliver this piece of bad news? Share how you did it and what did or didn’t work in the comment section!

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© Jeanne Goldie 2015