4 ways to ask your boss for a favor

By Deanna Cioppa

The Brief
Reaching out for a favor can be tricky among friends. But trickiness can quickly turn to cold-sweat anxiety when it is a manager who has what you need. Problem is, given their position it is inevitable that they’d be crucial sources of contacts that you can leverage, both for the good of your company and for more personal reasons. 
4 ways to ask your boss for a favor

Supervisors and executives might be the most valuable assets of your relationship capital. Their own networks are likely to dovetail with your specific needs often, be it a prospective client or partner or new recruit for your organization; a new board member for a nonprofit you volunteer with; investors for a side project; or a job opportunity for another contact in your network.

Some of these asks, of course, are more delicate than others. But each requires breaching hierarchical protocol. So how exactly do you cross this workplace Rubicon? Surprisingly, there isn’t all that much research on the psychology of favor-asking. What there is, though, are some general principles that, if followed, will raise your success rate:

1. Telegraph it. Let your boss see the request coming before the specific words actually come out of your mouth. This is as easy, says communication expert Jodi Glickman as starting your pitch with, “I have a favor to ask you.” Setting the stage,  Glickman says, gives your boss a few seconds to get in the right headspace, and more important, it creates a social contract between the two of you. Framing what you are looking for as a favor implies that you are prepared to reciprocate down the line.

“Starting your pitch with, ‘I have a favor to ask you,’ gives your boss a few seconds to get in the right headspace.”

2. Leave guilt out of it. Don’t feel bad or weird about asking for a favor; it will only hinder the process, writes UMass Amherst psych professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. When you enter a situation feeling guilty or unsure, you are way more likely to come off as either apologetic—which can undercut the validity of your request—or too casual, which may not sit well with your boss. Be honest and direct, and … 
3. Give a reason. People are more likely to respond positively to a request if they know the why of it, says Glickman. Explain your needs concisely: You want this introduction because it provides an in at a company you’re trying to secure as a client; or the contact’s interests align with a nonprofit you support; or your highly qualified friend is looking to learn more about job opportunities. What you don’t want to do, however, is mislead in your explanation. Never, ever lie about your motivations, says Whitbourne. It’s not worth the repercussions should you be found out.

“People are more likely to respond positively to a request if they know the why of it.”

4. Offer an out. Much has been written recently about how giving your time and energy to others ultimately increases your odds of success, personally and professionally. But, just in case your boss hasn’t read the literature, be sure to present your request with a built-in escape clause, says Glickman. For example, be sure your boss understands you don’t want expect them to make any introductions they don’t feel comfortable making. An explicit opportunity to decline gracefully avoids any feeling of being put on the spot, and may in fact put your boss in a more magnanimous mood. 
The takeaway: Sure, it may not always be appropriate to ask your boss for an introduction to someone in his network. But don’t lose the opportunity simply because you don’t know how to ask the question. 

RelSci is a technology solutions company that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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