Have you ever asked a colleague for information, only to be frustrated by their long response time? Have you ever received a response from a coworker after asking something and realized you could have answered the question yourself? Has your manager ever seemed frustrated at the need to explain routine next steps to you? If so, you aren’t alone. These types of potentially frustrating, stress-inducing workplace interactions have become commonplace for a number of reasons – corporate hierarchy, reliance on email communication as opposed to phone calls, geographic distribution of colleagues, etc. The good news is that you can greatly influence the volume, frequency and outcomes of these interactions, and turn what can be negative and frustrating experiences into positive opportunities to differentiate yourself while regaining control over your time and attitude. The secret is to ask yourself first.
…you can greatly influence the volume, frequency and outcomes of these interactions, and turn what can be negative and frustrating experiences into positive opportunities to differentiate yourself while regaining control over your time and attitude.
When you ask yourself first, you can better identify what lies within your circle of influence, and what lies outside of this circle, but still within your circle of concern. You may be surprised to find that by asking yourself first when questions arise, you can functionally expand your circle of influence, thereby shrinking your uninfluenced circle of concern. This change in the locus of control – moving it from external to internal – can lead to, among other things, lower levels of stress. You will find yourself waiting for fewer responses from colleagues, and because of the reduction in your request volume, coworkers will likely ascribe more urgency to the requests you choose to make. This manifests in an extremely gratifying win/win – you’ll feel more in control and likely receive follow-up responses more quickly, while your colleagues will receive fewer extraneous requests from you but will likely devote more of their valuable time to providing a timely response.
Learning To Ask Yourself First
When someone asks you a question, don’t immediately spring into action – at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, pause and ask yourself the following:
Do I Already Have This Answer?
If you think there is a chance you actually have the answer in your possession already, search for it. Look through your email, pore over your folders containing related information and review your meeting notes. This will frequently yield the material you seek. Only after searching for and being unable to locate something should you ask someone else for their help. While it isn’t a contest, everyone is busy. Just because your priority is to find something doesn’t necessarily mean it is your colleague’s priority to assist you. If you can take care of something on your own, do so.
What Is The Person I Plan To Ask Going To Do?
If you have searched your emails, notes and documents but have been unsuccessful in finding what you were looking for, pause and ask yourself: what steps will the person I plan on asking need to undertake in order to provide an answer to my question? Is this information uniquely available to my colleague, or is it either publicly available and searchable online, or accessible via a company resource like a shared drive, CRM instance or intranet? Get creative, cut out the middle-person and take it upon yourself to look for the information first, before asking someone else. This will enable you to own the whole process, which, in addition to endearing you to your time-strapped coworkers, will almost certainly speed up your time to completion.
What would my supervisor (or the person who needs this information) want me to do once I have found an answer?
If someone else has requested the information you have sought and obtained, don’t simply provide it to him or her and stop. Instead, ask yourself, “what is the logical next step in this process, and how can I help to facilitate that?” You’ll be amazed at how much your productivity increases by simply anticipating the next step in the process. I would advise against assuming what the next step is and simply moving forward. Rather, anticipate what the next move should be, provide this suggestion to the requestor, and, once validated, execute. This will show that you are not only skilled at tracking down information, but that you also have the foresight to see how the information will be used and confident enough to suggest an appropriate course of action. I am rarely happier than when a direct report outlines a well thought out path towards a solution and asks for approval to move forward.
Asking yourself first is something you can train yourself to do. Pay attention to the things you do just before asking someone else first – usually, this involves replying to or forwarding an email. Before you hit send, re-read the email and ask yourself the three questions listed above. The more often you do this, the better you’ll become at making the act of asking yourself first part of your routine, and the better your experiences and outcomes will be.
Look through your sent messages from today and identify one email where you could have asked yourself first instead of asking a coworker. Regardless of whether the coworker has responded yet, try to find the information you inquired about. Were you able to find it? How long did it take?