Ask for what you want
It is not easy to articulate what we desire and even harder to ask for it. In the workplace, I have struggled with feelings of fear, guilt, and self-doubt when thinking about my wants. Do I really deserve this? Is this the right moment to potentially rock the boat? Do my feelings matter? Is it worth asking? Will s/he like me less for asking? What if s/he gets mad or upset? What if I get mad or upset? What if s/he says no? These questions echo in the back of my mind even if there is an inkling of desire, a hunger for more, a yearning for change. And yet, I have found time and time again that while I know I can’t always get what I want, it is almost always worth asking. As the song goes, “if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
I am consistently surprised at peers’ reactions when I tell them about the conversations I’ve had with my supervisors or coworkers about promotions, job offers, project outcomes, strategic plans, and raises. Surprise. Disbelief. Discomfort. Admiration. “You said that?” “You told them what?” “That was so brave.” “I can’t believe you asked for more.” Asking for something you want, something you want more of, or something you no longer want, requires vulnerability, and many of us shy away from being vulnerable, especially at work. We like to feel in control. We value hierarchy and try to convince ourselves that the people above us know more than we do and must have our best interests at heart. Other times, we feel that the people above us know nothing and so what’s the point? They never listen anyway. The reality is that when our organizations do not cultivate a culture of people asking for what they want or need, our places of work—places where we should be able to flex our intellect, push the boundaries of the status quo, and exploit our creativity—become cesspools of complacency and resentment. If we believe that nothing can change for us, or worse, that we don’t deserve the changes we desire, there is no reason to do our best work or to aspire for more. If what we want out of our jobs, organizations, or lives feels impossible or out of reach, we get bitter, offended more easily, and construct hopeless narratives that cripple progress. The ultimate result is stagnation, high turnover, stifling indifference, and contagious mediocrity.
Furthermore, withholding our wants from leaders or decision-makers actually makes them less attuned to how things are and how things could be. When we start to feel comfortable asking for what we want rather than only talking about how things are, way opens for vision, new ideas, and patterns to emerge. Opportunities arise for change, innovation, and a culture of collaboration. When we ask for what we want, we get the chance to get what we want, and we can begin to shift the narrative of hopelessness to a narrative of hopefulness. I have learned that flipping the questions I ask myself out of fear or guilt is far more powerful. Do I or my colleagues deserve things as they are? What will happen if I DON’T rock the boat? How do my feelings speak to the larger picture? Is it worth NOT asking? Will s/he like me MORE for asking? What if s/he gets inspired or changes his/her mind? What if I get what I ask for? What if s/he says yes? These questions allow us to envision what is possible instead of fixating on all the horrible possibilities we can imagine.
My experience with asking for what I want is that as long as you remain tactful, respectful, and relatively emotionally detached (at least on the outside), supervisors and peers respect you more for naming things as you see them, for questioning, and self-advocating. An important distinction is that asking is very different from demanding, reprimanding, or giving ultimatums. In my annual review this year—after a year of asking for a lot and getting most of it—my supervisor went out of her way to thank me for approaching challenges with questions, for my willingness to be flexible and open-minded, and for creating space for constructive conversation rather than listing out non-negotiables and requirements and walking away. While I would argue that there is a time and place for the latter, the lesson here is that there are techniques that with practice (and I have been practicing a lot), work to help us get what we want even if it’s hard to ask.
Prepare for the conversation and practice with someone you trust. Understand both sides of a situation or scenario. Remain calm. Have evidence to back up your requests, but keep your list short and to the point. Your boss doesn’t need a laundry list of your accomplishments or the faults/inadequacies of others. Know your worth and believe that your voice has value. Articulate how your desires matter in the larger context—it’s not all about you! Be reasonable and constructive. Express gratitude to the person for listening and considering your point of view. Limit your expectations. Be ready to hear and accept “no.” Be honest with yourself and the person with whom you are speaking about what a “no” might mean for you and for others. Stay patient and remember that change takes time and time can mean hours, days, months, or even years. Only you know if you are able or willing to wait.