Life in post-pandemic times is curious. The labor force is tight. Attracting and retaining bright, engaged employees is a challenge. New terms are being used to define workforce conditions, like “quiet quitting.” The impact of a workforce shortage could place the integrity of your operations in jeopardy.
For an industry dedicated to improving health status, the risks are substantial. It’s clear the integrity of your supply chain now requires specific attention to retention and recruitment strategies. It is so critical that the Organic & Natural Health Association is featuring best practices for recruitment and retention at our eighth annual national conference in January.
You’ve likely read about effective strategies to create a positive workplace culture. They often include edicts to establish your core values, be flexible and inclusive, and find ways to have fun. These are all great goals, and yet do little to provide concrete steps for actually enabling a collaborative dialogue that empowers your employees. Shouldn’t that be one of our top priorities? The following strategy is an articulation of one practice that does just that.
Request versus demand
How many times a day do you make a request? Bring to mind one specific example, and ask yourself if it is indeed a request, or is it actually a demand? What is the difference? A demand is non-negotiable, such as payroll must be completed every two weeks; or our business terms require delivery in 30 days. A request is negotiable. A request acknowledges that at least two parties are engaged and committed to successful action. A request allows one party to respond, “No, I can’t do that.” If you are asking someone to do something and cannot accept a “no,” you are making a demand. A request is a negotiation.
It seems like such a simple thing, the ability to make a request instead of demanding action from someone. However, I suspect the majority of your requests are, in reality, demands. If you make demands all day long, as many of us do, you’ll have a lot of unhappy people on your hands who can’t successfully meet deadlines. Productivity will go down and clients will complain deadlines are being missed. As managers, we can find ourselves wanting things to be different, complete and better, and we make up stories about why they are not. All of this results in a lot of disappointment for you, your employees and your colleagues. Too many demands stifles creativity, slows down problem-solving, forces everyone into a scramble to please, and in general, creates a workplace culture with an undercurrent of upset employees.
How to make an effective request
Making an effective request is a skill that requires using a clearly defined process that enables uniform participation.
Create a peaceful request. The first rule about making a request is to not do so when you are upset. At its core, upset is most often the result of an unmet request. If the change, action or terms you want have not been met, you may find yourself physically tensing up, or your breathing could become shallow. Your focus needs to be relaxed and open, not ready for an argument. Remember that a request is a negotiation.
Define your request with clarity. Exactly what is it you want? What is it that is missing? Remember, what you describe as a problem might not meet someone else’s definition of a problem. Many people are comfortable living out of a pile of laundry—clean or dirty—just as there are people who do not feel the need to file the papers on their desks, and people who are not compelled to participate in every email exchange. Be as specific and complete as you can when making a request.
Clarify the conditions of success, specifically the who, what, where and when. Determine who the request is for, specifically. Is it the entire sales team or the manager of the team? Define what the request is and be specific. Does it matter where this work happens? If so, specify that. When is the request due? How should the finished product look, be delivered and to whom, and in what format? Make no assumptions, and you leave less room for error and misunderstanding.
Ensure commitment to the conversation. There is an art in the language of making a request. Before you make your request, ensure both the speaker and listener are committed to the conversation. A dear friend once told me that multitasking means you are paying more attention to one thing over another. These days we overcommit our attention to tasks and are constantly bombarded by electronic conversation, such as email and texts, headphones and watches. Constant stimuli are distracting. You can’t negotiate a pay raise and monitor your phone at the same time.
Let’s make a request with ‘James’
Making an effective request without the full attention of both parties could be equally risky. The constant use of “will you do this for me” can be lost on the ear. The language of a well-articulated request is alive, and requires listening, and equally important, participation.
“I request (who) you, James, (what) complete the sales report (when) by five working days before the end of every month for the eastern regional offices. I need them (where) delivered to me in hard copy and by email.”
And here is the really important part of the request, and frankly, this part is not optional:
“Do you accept, decline or counteroffer?”
The use of this interestingly worded question will support you in the goal to achieve total engagement. It will ensure the full attention of your listeners who are now empowered to negotiate your request, versus offering an enthusiastic or lackluster “yes,” and moving on to the next thing. The offer to accept, decline or counteroffer requires the full attention of both parties to the conversation. This is why neither party can afford to be distracted by phones. This is not a casual conversation for the hallway or text messaging.
James can accept the terms and conditions of your request, alerting the applause meter in your head to celebrate. Or, James can say, “No, I decline the request.” A request can be declined, a demand cannot. Should James say no, you need to be prepared to move on to the next available person to have your request fulfilled.
James can also make a counteroffer. His current timeline for obtaining updates to the revenue forecast from his sales team doesn’t allow sufficient time to complete the report by the date specified in your request. He counteroffers, saying he can fulfill the request by the last day of each month.
You can negotiate his proposed terms, or you can decline his offer. If you decline to negotiate, you’re stuck. Now you are making a demand, one that by logical standards appears to be unachievable. If you negotiate, you can let James know the board of directors is insisting on monthly sales reports. The two of you can review the calendar and determine how best to get the board the information they need, all while ensuring James’ sales team’s efforts are reported accurately and in a jointly agreed timeline. A successful negotiation means everyone’s concerns are acknowledged.
When a request breaks down
What if it doesn’t work? What if I negotiate the terms and we have a clear and documented understanding, only for the deadline to be missed? That’s when you declare a breakdown. Clearly, something went wrong. The question is, what went wrong?
Were your conditions of satisfaction clear? Was there ample opportunity for James to decline? Is it possible James was reticent to decline your request for fear of retribution? Regardless, declare a breakdown and renegotiate those terms now. If you choose not to renegotiate, you will most likely resort to making a demand, if not of James, then of the next person on your list. Implementing this tool requires transparency and consistency. Without both, you risk the goodwill and trust of your employees who are left to believe that requests are actually demands in disguise.
Disregarding the concerns of one of your managers has a ripple effect. Upsetting the entire team is not the goal. Making more requests versus demands with your employees is a way to successfully negotiate a productive 2023.
Karen Howard, CEO and executive director of the Organic & Natural Health Association, has spent more than 30 years working with Congress, state legislatures and health care organizations to develop innovative health care policy and programs. She has held a variety of executive positions, including serving as professional staff for a congressional committee, and Karen has policy expertise in the diverse areas of integrative and complementary medicine, managed care, health care technology and mental health.