Listening Intelligence Blog

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Avoid the Hidden Costs of Unclear Requests

Posted by Brian Branagan on Aug 19, 2019 7:35:00 AM

Requests that aren’t specific about the desired outcomes are a frequent cause of miscoordination in the workplace. When looking at the financial and human waste that is caused by team members who don't clearly ask for what they need, the resulting costs to a company are staggering. 

According to SIS International Research, 70 percent of small to mid-size businesses claim that ineffective communication is their primary problem. SIS also reports that a business with 100 employees spends an average downtime of 17.5 hours per week clarifying communication translating to an annual cost of $524,569. Now that's a lot of miscommunication!

Are you over-committing yourself.

All of us have found ourselves saying "yes" to requests without first clarifying the details of what we are being asked to do.  Some of us have even wondered what we have agreed to do immediately after we’ve said “yes.”  Stop for a moment and consider how many projects - due to lack of clarity about expectations - have been delayed because “superhuman” effort and the best of intentions weren’t enough to make it all work. What about the additional costs that pile up when in the 11th hour outside resources are hired at a premium price to get the project done?

Say Yes to what you can do.

Another reason that unclear requests produce harmful impacts in business is that time is finite. It is the one area of our world that any of us can control but time is a precious commodity we can never get back once it's gone. When we don't believe we have the right to both make requests or push back on requests being made of us (the boss, other team members, suppliers), we often make poor choices and essentially subordinate ourselves. Without meaning to, we send the message to everyone around us that, " Your priorities are more important than mine."

Evaluate your approach to requests.

I recommend my clients monitor how they approach responding to requests for one week. They report it’s an enlightening exercise! They have noticed that when approached with requests for urgent action, their automatic tendency is to take it on without thinking. In retrospect, they see that they didn't ask for more information about what's required, nor did they take enough time to fully evaluate their capacity to fulfill the request given their other priorities. 

Practice asking clarifying questions first.

A mentor of mine once told me to never say yes without asking for something in return. “If someone makes a Big Request of you to take care of something important to them,” he said, “you get to make a Big Request of them for something that’s important for you, too. It’s called negotiating.”

That’s why I ask my clients to practice making “counter-requests” for clarity:

  • What is the expected outcome for this task or project?
  • What needs to be taken care of here?
  • Who else is involved in the producing the outcome?
  • Am I the right person with the right skills to take this on?
  • Am I able to commit the time it will take to do the work right?
  • What other team support or systems are in place to help me honor the request? 

My clients have reported positive results from these “action experiments” into clarifying requests. What they've noticed is that requests that first seemed urgent weren't so urgent after all.  Clarifying questions helped everyone involved make better decisions while reducing wasted time, money and personal frustration. Others will appreciate your ability to clarify what's needed and begin to see you as a partner in helping to co-create solutions to challenges or opportunities.  

Take the challenge for yourself!

For the next week, try this action experiment for yourself and reach out to me directly to share your results. I'd love to hear your stories and share your experiences in future posts. 

About Brian

Brian Branagan is a member of ECHO's Listening Intelligence Certified Practitioner Community. He is a leadership and management coach who engages individuals and organizations to increase their agility in delivering their products and services while also meeting corporate and market demands.

Brian’s specialties are commitment-based project management, cross-functional expertise in project definition, planning, execution, customer delivery and software quality assurance. Clients include: Adobe Systems, Getty Images, RealNetworks and F5 Networks. Visit 

Topics: Listening, Leadership, Cognitive Diversity, Communication, Productivity