Look closely at what you ask for and how you ask.
Q: People keep letting me down: When I ask them for help, they agree but don’t deliver. This has happened repeatedly with a couple of people in particular.
What do I need to do to keep them on track? — Steffi, 35, customer service director
A: Look closely at what you ask for, how you ask — and the strength of the agreements you have reached.
Start with asking the right person. That person may be too busy, but may not feel comfortable saying no. There’s a cliché that if you want to get something done, ask the busiest person. But that’s not fair and also can lead to under-delivery because that person is overextended.
The helper also needs to know how to do what you need, or have the request framed as a development opportunity with the necessary support provided. If they get in over their head, that won’t end well.
Be sure you’re specific about what you want. If you’re open-ended or vague, then you’re likely to be dissatisfied with the outcome. In that situation, the helper could take one of several actions. The person may, sensibly, sit you down and ask questions to have you clarify your need.
If people have done that in the past, consider your responses. If you’ve been impatient or dismissive, you’re shutting down the most positive step they could be taking.
Otherwise, they may go off confidently in the direction they think is right, which doesn’t seem to be getting you a good outcome. Or they may just spin, not knowing quite what to do, so not doing anything.
Once you have the right person and you both agree on the goal, make sure you’re explicit in developing shared expectations. This doesn’t have to be elaborate; it could be as simple as, “I will do X by (date).”
With a more complicated task or one that’s new to the helper, it’ll be safer if you get more detailed on the steps they’ll take. You may even want to talk about the Plan B they’ll pursue if they encounter challenges.
Consider what’s in it for them to help you. If they report to you, it’s obvious; they’re part of your team and it’s your job to direct their work.
But what if it’s a peer on your team, or someone from a different part of the organization? It’s up to you to make it worth their time. Maybe they’re motivated by learning something new.
In that case, don’t always just ask them to do grunt work that may not be rewarding.
Maybe there’s an expectation of reciprocity, and they need your help sometimes, too.
Offer your assistance when you see a need, and agree to help — and follow through impeccably — if someone reaches out to you.
Stay connected as the work is being done. Tasks can slip people’s minds, especially if they’re outside the normal routine. A quick, friendly check-in can do wonders without causing undue angst.
In general, people want to be helpful and like to be successful in what they do.
It’s your role to set them up for success when you ask them for help.