Stop polluting; avoid “bad asks”

by | Sep 22, 2014 | Blog | 1 comment

pollutingAfter my last blog post on the culture clash of “experts” and “idiots”, I had some explaining to do.

My referring to “Let’s do lunch” and “We want to hear from you” as “fake asks” was too harsh for some Charleston folks.

To paraphrase one individual: “What if I’m being sincere when I say ‘Let’s do lunch’ or ‘Let’s have coffee’? Is that still a ‘fake ask’?”

Yes, it’s a “fake ask” because sincerity has nothing to do with it. It’s about action—or lack of action. It’s also about respecting and valuing people and their time.

As background, a “fake ask” is a stand-alone comment that assumes an action will take place, but there’s no follow through or follow-up.

Generally, the individual who receives the request isn’t clear whether he or she is expected to take a first step—unless he or she is extremely motivated to act. It’s often easier to do nothing.

When you throw out “fake asks” or make other “bad asks” (more about them later), you’re contributing to information pollution.

Extra information without action adds to clutter—especially when people are already overloaded with information at work. They need to spend additional time, energy and brainpower to sort through these “bad asks” and figure out what to do.

For those of us who are concerned about efficiency, this entails a lot of waste. Requests are ignored, partially completed or finished with errors. A root cause analysis often points to a poorly-designed or inadequate request.

In my experience, when I explain the trio of “bad asks,” leaders start to realize that they need to devote time, thought and energy to formulating well-designed “calls to action.”

Many leaders have assumed that if they make a request, others will respond, because of the power of their position or the appeal of the offer.

Between the “ask” and the “act” though, there’s often a long and windy road—regardless of the leaders’ position or the request.

First you’ve got to get people’s attention, which is easier said than done.

Then you need to make sure people have the “will” (the motivation) and the “skill” (ability) to fulfill the request.

And last, but not least, individuals need to be able to get over the hill,” past all the obstacles. These include other commitments and priorities, confusing directions, undefined deadlines, hard-to-use technology and other impediments.

For many on the receiving end of a request, especially a “bad ask,” it’s often easier to take the path of least resistance. To them, this could be “just say no,” ignore the request or wait it out—especially when the hill feels more like a mountain, which is especially common with other “bad asks.”

Consider the “buried alive ask.” The request is embedded so deep in the email or the rambling discourse that it’s next to impossible to detect. For example, picture the “wall of words” that confronts you when you open some email messages. You feel like you need special mountain-climbing gear to get through the dense material to figure out what the point is and what you’re expected to do with it.

As for “Taser asks,” they stun and stagger people. The message starts off about something benign, and then hits you in the gut with some unexpected announcement that may adversely affect you. The classic example is when Yahoo sent out a message on a Friday afternoon asking all employees to stop tele-commuting and start coming into the office. For more about this, check out the blog post Avoid Taser asks to get others to act.

When people have to spend valuable time and brainpower dealing with “bad asks,” they increase their “cognitive load” as the neuroscientists describe it. Frustration levels rise, initiatives can stall and the latest round of the blame game gets underway with fingers pointing.

To avoid these situations, you need to carefully design your “call to action” and make it as easy as possible for people to comply. For some tips, refer to 7 steps for a compelling call to action or contact me for guidance.

My ask of you? Take this topic seriously and focus on replacing “bad asks” with brain-friendly calls to action that are as easy as possible for people to do. You’ll stop polluting, earn more respect and credibility, and get more done faster through others.

1 Comment

  1. Jane Perdue

    Love both of your posts on this topic, Liz! I wrote a similar piece not long after moving here, too. Wonder if it’s some rite of passage…. But regardless, being authentic is a drum worthy of our continual beat.

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