How to Deal with Impossible Requests

Insights for Professionals

Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for Management pros

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Handling difficult requests is something bosses and managers need to feel comfortable with, and it can be a lot easier if you have practiced methods in place to help you.

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One of the most common but difficult scenarios team leaders and line managers face in their day-to-day work is handling impractical requests from employees.

From impossible pay rises and last-minute appeals for time off, to more bizarre and unexpected demands, experienced bosses will have heard all sorts during their time in the workplace. Sometimes, it’s part of your job to simply say ‘no’.

But how do you do this in a way that is tactful and professional, and also makes it clear that this sort of request is unlikely to be granted at any time in the future?

1. Expect the unexpected

Keeping an open mind and being prepared for anything and everything the workplace might throw at you is generally a good policy for managers.

It can be particularly useful when you're dealing with employee requests, as the likelihood is you will be asked for a lot of strange things over the course of your career. Accepting this fact and treating every request with a basic level of respect and even-handedness, no matter how surprising it is, will help you do your job and reduce the risk of people feeling they’ve been unfairly treated.

2. Stay professional

Some enquiries you receive as a manager might be so outlandish that your first instinct is to laugh, or simply gape in shock at the person in front of you. Or an employee’s request may be so bold, presumptuous or obviously impossible to fulfil that you feel frustrated because your time is being wasted.

In these situations, it’s vital to maintain your professionalism and, once again, treat the person who has approached you with the respect every member of the workforce deserves.

Taking a deep breath, working through the request methodically and taking your time to respond can all be effective tactics to maintain your composure and stay professional in this tricky situation.

3. Let them down gently

Saying ‘no’ might be an uncomfortable experience for you as a manager, but it can be equally difficult for the person who has come to you, regardless of how impractical or unlikely their request may be.

It’s important to bear that in mind and to phrase your response in a way that shows consideration of their feelings. Failing to do so could result in the employee going away with a bad impression of your management style and the company as a whole, potentially leading to engagement and productivity problems in the future.

Furthermore, it’s always a good idea to thank the individual for bringing their request to you in the first place. After all, they could have simply ignored protocol and made their own decision to take time off or leave the office early, for example.

4. Explain why you have to say no

As obvious as it might seem to you, as an experienced team leader, some people who have spent less time in the workplace might not fully understand why the request they’ve made is impossible to grant.

If necessary, go through the company’s policies or the terms in the individual’s contract that prevent you from giving approval. It might also be useful to explain how allowing this request could have an impact on the rest of the workforce and the business.

When an employee comes to you on a Friday afternoon and asks for the next two weeks off for a last-minute holiday, point out that if you allowed everyone else to do the same, the entire company would grind to a halt. Why should one member of staff be treated any differently to their co-workers?

5. Make alternative plans

Rather than simply saying a firm ‘no’ and showing them the door, talk to the employee about the situation and other ways you might be able to support them.

If someone makes a late request for annual leave that you simply can’t grant because the company is too busy, suggest some alternative dates that are more feasible, based on the amount of work you have on.

Similarly, if an employee wants to leave an hour earlier than the rest of their team to pick up their children from school, talk about options for flexible working, or how the company might be able to help with childcare costs.

Some requests might be simply impossible, but a positive, understanding approach can unlock solutions that are acceptable to all parties.

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