How to Ask for a Commitment | UNSSC

Do you ever need to rely on your manager to make a decision but they don’t have the same sense of urgency as you? Whether it’s your line manager or other leaders in the organization, we regularly rely on others. Since we often have no positional power over these people, we must try to influence them without authority. This is one of the biggest frustrations that leads to missed deadlines, increased stress and strained relationships.

So what are some options?

Waiting for a logout

Let’s say you need approval on a document to proceed with an initiative. Let’s also assume that you gave your manager eight days to review and approve the document. To up the ante, imagine this release is on your initiative’s critical path, meaning that if it takes longer, your initiative will be delayed.

This is how I used to deal with this situation. I would write to my manager to say something along the lines of, “Please! You must sign this document! It’s really, really important! I need this fast!”

Sometimes it worked, but often I had to wait for approval. The clock keeps ticking, delaying my project while the supervisor drags his feet.

That was old Andy. The new Andy puts it this way: “Here is the document for your review and approval. You don’t have to contact me today – we’ve dedicated eight days to the task. However, I have to let you know that it is on the critical path, which means that if it takes you nine days, the project will slip by one day. Can you unsubscribe in eight days? (Break)”

How would you characterize old Andy from the new Andy?

The first approach communicated urgency, which can be good. But it was dripping with emotion. It was just another crisis. In hindsight, it probably sounded like the cliché, “A lack of planning on your part isn’t an emergency on my part!” It’s like the person who treats every email as a high priority. What if every email comes with a red exclamation mark in the inbox? It becomes invisible, doesn’t it?

The same goes for my first approach. Others might easily reply, “It’s just another day Kaufman’s hair is on fire. Get in line.”

Compare that to the second approach. There’s a sense of urgency sure, but it also communicates the consequences of inaction. That’s no small point.

Many people conveniently start their week putting out the biggest fires. Hopefully even the smallest fires will be out by the end of the week. Anyway, communicate urgency without that consequences of inaction is not that effective.

Announcing a possible delay in initiative is not a threat, especially if you are careful with your tone of voice and body language. But the lag is real potential if they don’t act, so make it clear.

Reservations and task commitments

What about the last question, “Can you make it for eight days?” (Break)”

This emerges from the influence research by Dr. Robert Cialdini. It tells the story of Gordon Sinclair, the owner of a prominent Chicago restaurant. When guests called for reservations, his receptionists would typically end the conversation by saying, “Okay, we’re inviting you to a party for two on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.” Please call if you need to change your plans.”

Seems reasonable. But about 30 percent of those people never showed up Saturday night and didn’t call. In the hospitality industry, that can add up to real money.

Sinclair suggested a slight change to the script. His receptionists began ending the call like this: “Okay, we’re inviting you to a party for two on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. By the way, would you call us if you need to change your plans?” Pause.

How would you answer if a restaurant asked you this question? They didn’t ask for a credit card number, phone number or first born child! They just asked a simple question: “Will you call?”

Most people would answer, “Sure!”

The result? Their no-shows without a call dropped from 30 percent to 10 percent.

Could it be that we’re not asking for acceptance often enough? This might be less of an issue if we’re the boss. But what if we are dependent on a manager, colleague or someone higher up in the organization? Could it be that too often we shy away from asking for a commitment?

I think so. Start asking about the promise. And wait for the answer.

Possible answers

In our opt-out example, what are the three possible answers to the question “Can you reach eight days?”

Yes. no. Maybe.

If you say YesCialdini research suggests they are more likely to be compelled to complete work on time, especially if that commitment is made public.

What if they answer with a no? At the very least, you’ll benefit from knowing about the situation now instead of eight days from now. You can ask questions like, “What’s stopping you from meeting this date?” What would it take to make that a yes?”

Since their inability to commit will delay the project, you may need to escalate the issue to a project sponsor or governance committee. Before you do that, you should ask, “Since I need to escalate this as a delay, would you like to join me in updating the status?” or “Is there anything I should request for you when I take this to the sponsor?”

dr Allan Cohen suggests that you should never catch anyone off guard with an escalation — especially your manager. Always give them a warning first.

What if they answer Maybe? I propose that Maybe the same as no. Ask the same questions to see if you can turn it into a Yes.

It gets a little trickier when they answer with Maybe‘s more upbeat cousin Probably. In this case, you might want to set a tripwire, say, three days into the task. If they are on track at this point, you can go ahead with the appointment as planned. But if they’re behind at that point, it triggers an escalation.

Ask for a commitment

Since learning this principle, I have used it with colleagues and clients with great success. I can assure you my kids hate it! Sales professionals understand: Ask for the sale. For the rest of us, when you depend on someone to do their job—even if it’s our boss—ask for a promise.

I teach this and more in the Managing Up session of the United Nations System Staff College’s UN Emerging e-learning program. Join the next issue to learn new leadership skills that can help you bring out the best in yourself and those you work with.

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