By Liz Ryan I've heard it said, probably by an amateur philsopher, that there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't. I'd split the workforce along a different meridian -- between people who unabashedly ask you to do work that's really theirs, and the rest of us, who wouldn't dare do such a thing.
What's the quality that permits some officemates to coolly corner others with: "Joan, can you type up the minutes from this meeting and distribute them?" If Joan has the presence of mind to say, "I haven't been taking notes," this same character will hand her a sheaf of scribbles and say with a smile: "Use mine." It's impressive, in a twisted way, this ability to turn colleagues and even strangers into temporary subordinates on the fly.
OUT OF LINE. Now, don't let me leave the impression that I dislike teamwork. It's essential for workmates to support one another, and a bond develops when team members have one another's backs. It's great, in that environment, to be able to say things like: "Roger, thanks a million for helping me with my trade-show planning model yesterday, and let me know if you need help with the XYZ proposal." That's what a team is all about.
Yet who among us hasn't been startled by a request for help that was either so presumptuous ("Say, Sally, can I get you to write Xavier's performance review for me?") or so random that it was out of line?
Strangely, right at that moment it's usually hard to say no. Most of us have been trained to be helpful and kind. So our impulse is to say "Sure," even if the request is off the wall. And then we kick ourselves, because the recipient of our largesse isn't even grateful. In fact, some people will take a mile for every inch we offer, and end up trying to foist off their entire workload. Don't let it happen!
OVER TO YOU. The best way to handle an excessive favor asker is to arm yourself with a parry phrase. That's a quick, canned response to an unwelcome request that crops up unexpectedly, often when there are other people around.
When a co-worker suggests: "Sanjeev, maybe you're the right guy to create the manufacturing cost model" (even as your brain is screaming NO, THAT GUY WOULD BE YOU, TURKEY, SINCE IT'S YOUR DANG IDEA), you can reply: "Call me and we'll talk about it." I love that -- it's the 2005 version of "I'll take it under advisement." When you say, "Call me, and we'll talk about it," you're communicating one of three things:
1) I don't love the idea, so you'll have to sell me, and that's unlikely.
2) The ball is in your court. When you call me, I'll have already forgotten what you wanted.
3)There's no guarantee I'll take your call.
DOUBLE MESSAGES. Back in grad school, I was exposed to the concept that every written or verbal communique comes in two parts, like twisted copper wires in a phone line. One is the content -- the words in the message -- and the other is an implied statement about the relationship between the people involved. So when your colleague says, "Please do this for me," he may actually be saying, "I would really value your help, and of course I'll reciprocate any time you want."
Or he may be saying: "I'm not sure I'll remember your name an hour from now, but right now I'm looking at you, and I think there's a decent chance you'll sign up to lighten my workload, so I'm goin' for it."
Do you know how to distinguish one "twisted pair" message from the other?
In your gut. You can sense when a favor is truly a favor, when the person asking is someone who would back you up. And you know when you're being fleeced. There's usually a tiny voice down in your gut that cries out, "Why should I do that?" But not always. Sometimes you happily sign up for some project at a meeting, in the spirit of camaraderie and helpfulness, and then awake at 3 a.m. thinking, "What possessed me to say yes?"
IT'S JUST WRONG. So you need another parry phrase, one that you can use for little requests, where "Call me, and we'll talk about it" isn't appropriate. After all, you can't say "Call me, and we'll talk about it" when George asks you to schedule the next production meeting. Why should I do that, you're thinking -- it's his meeting! Still, it would be ridiculous to ask George to call you to talk about who should schedule the meeting, considering that the task takes two minutes.
It's just that it's wrong of him to ask, and you'll be damned if you're going to say yes to another of George's requests. Your peer George has just shipped you a message comprising one simple, hard-to-say-no-to request, twisted together with the implication that George believes he's superior to you. If you cave and agree to schedule the next meeting, you'll be agreeing with George, and at 3 a.m. tomorrow your gut will tell you that. So don't do it.
Instead, do this (which you have to practice to make natural). Raise an eyebrow (universal language for "That's random") and say, "If you don't mind, I'll let you handle that."
THE JIG IS UP. Then shut up. No elaboration. If the meeting is ending, turn to the person next to you and strike up a conversation. Most Georges will take the hint. But if your George persists and says: "But can't you just do this thing?" simply answer: "Oh, I'm so sorry -- it's just impossible." Smile warmly as you say this. "It's impossible" is code for: "George, the jig is up."
Now you've sent your own twisted-pair message, and the two parts say, "No," and "Get over yourself." Of course, you want to be careful to do this only with George the jerk, not with George your friend, and certainly not with George the boss.
Using these two parry phrases should get most of the workload-foisters off your back. You'll make better use of your time and, more important, eliminate some of those 3 a.m. wakeups. After all, you need to sleep soundly tonight -- you have a lot of your own work to do tomorrow. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT