should managers ask or tell when assigning work?

A reader writes:

When dealing with people that work directly for me, should I ask them to do things or tell them to do things? Does telling someone to do something in a work environment come off as harsh? I always ask them to do things, but I’m starting to feel like asking them kind of makes me look weak.

Either is fine, if you’re saying it nicely and not barking orders like you are Caligula.

There’s nothing wrong with “Please talk to Fergus about the teapot design and see if you can find a solution to the spout issue” as long as you say it politely.

But thinking back over what I tend to use myself, I generally default to framing things as asking — “Could you do X by the end of the week?” … “Here’s a new project I’m hoping you can take on” … etc.

And really, in most cases when a work assignment from your manager is framed as a request, it’s pretty clear it’s a directive. People aren’t generally going to reply with “Nope.” But I default to requests — unless there’s a reason not to — because (a) it feels more respectful to me, and (b) it makes it easier for people to speak up when they’re worried about their ability to deliver; it invites people to tell you if, for example, there’s a deadline conflict or they have concerns about how realistic the request is.

However, there’s a third category beyond requests and directives that’s important to talk about: things that sound like suggestions. If you say something like, “Feel free to show me that report before you finalize it,” a lot of people will hear that as “you can show it to me if you want to, but you don’t have to.” Then you’ll end up getting frustrated that your “suggestion” wasn’t followed, and your staff will end up confused about your expectations. So if you definitely want someone to do something, make sure you’re not framing it as “you could…” or “feel free to…” or “one idea would be…” or other suggestion formulations.

Perhaps more important than any of this, though, I’m wondering about why you’re feeling like framing things as requests is making you look weak. That suggests that you’re either feeling insecure about your authority for your own reasons, or your team is unclear on roles and expectations, or something else is going on. I’d explore that piece of it — because in a healthy, functioning team, a manager’s authority won’t be compromised by politely asking people to do what they need done.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. Dawn*

    My last boss, who was wonderful and great to work for, framed things as instructions early on as I was working for her, then once we fell into a really good working groove started framing things as requests. So like, month 6 was “Hey Dawn, I need you to do X by Friday so please start on that ASAP” and then by year 2 it was “Dawn, SVP Fergus wants a Teapot Directive, can you take that? I’m thinking it’d tie in nicely with the Handle Directive you just finished up. I think he wants it by Tuesday next week but touch base with him to get specifics.” As she got to know me, my limitations, and my working style we meshed in a really great way where she’d hand off things that she thought I’d do great at to me and hand off things she though other people would do great at to them. One of the ways she was an awesome manager is that she understood the individual strengths of people on her team and would give us projects that played to those strengths, so we’d be more inclined to jump in and take ownership on a project because we liked doing it and were good at it in the first place.

  2. nona*

    I kind of disagree, because if directions are given as requests, you can’t tell the difference between “Do X” and “Do X if you want to/have time.” You don’t know what you can reasonably say “no” to.

    I’m really, really grateful for direct instructions.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone interpret “Hey, could you send me pricing on printing the X project?” as having an implied “only if you want to/have time.” That just doesn’t line up with my experience at all!

      But certainly if I saw that’s how it was being taken, I’d have a clarifying conversation with the person to get us on the same page in the future.

      1. Hellanon*

        As my housemate helpfully explained to one of the other interns at her summer posting, “When the boss says ‘Could you please’ the answer is always yes!”

        1. Shan*

          I hadn’t even thought about how my manager assigns projects until this post. She normally sends an e-mail that starts with “Can you please…” and I always say yes. Since I am relatively new, I also feel comfortable asking for assistance if necessary, as the request can open up a dialogue.

      2. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        Yeah, I’ll pay attention the next few days but I think I frame things as requests near 100% of the time, and I haven’t had any issues.

        “Can you get me the TPS reports this morning, please?” either gets me the TPS reports this morning or a response like “gah, totally snowed under, is this afternoon okay?”

        If I say “I need you to do XYZ”, that’s akin to your mother calling you by your first, middle and last name. “I need you to pay closer attention to XYZ, there were more mistakes last time” comes after “Can you pay closer attention to XYZ, there were some mistakes last time.”

        FWIW, I have an authoritative speaking voice so I don’t think “Can” and “please” are misunderstood as anything other than friendly politeness.

      3. Green*

        I personally like “Can you do X by Y?” because that seems open to a dialogue about time management and priorities. (“Hm, I could do X by Z date. Would that work? Or I could do X but Y and push A back to B deadline. How should I prioritize these projects?”) Depends on the office and role, but especially helpful when you have many bosses (and many people who could do X).

        1. Decimus*

          I like “can you do X” because it’s conditional on ability, not permission. Can means “do you have the ability to do this” with the implication you should if possible. If you said “Can you email the client the final report?” then “No, the internet just went down” or “Not until Wakeen sends me the final data” would be reasonable responses, as would “I need to do final revisions but can have it out by 4pm”.

          1. Cruella DaBoss*

            ^^ THIS. Though I have always wanted to say something like “Emily, I need 20 skirts from Calvin Klein. That’s all.”

      4. nona*

        That makes sense. But I’m talking about “Do you have time for X?” and things like that.

        “Could you ___?” is of course a pretty direct instruction.

      5. Adonday Veeah*

        I’m still, more than 40 years later, blushing as I write this — at my first full time job, there were 5 of us who worked out of one big, open office. If you wanted a private conversation (for instance, with a client or a subordinate) you would go to the coffee shop around the corner.

        One day, my boss asked me to go get coffee with him. Not being a coffee drinker at the time, I said no thanks. He set me straight, we went for coffee, and he was careful from then on how he worded things with me. To this day my ears get pink when I think of it.

        1. The Bimmer Guy*

          Well if he said something like, “Would you like to go get coffee?” it’s hardly your fault if you responded with a no-thanks…as I would, because I hate coffee and most products sold in coffee shops.

          1. BeenThere*

            This. I also have a habit of taking things literally and requiring direct instructions … I regularly tell my manager no. I’m amazed to be considered a top performer

      6. Connie-Lynne*

        I almost always frame things as requests, although I do give clear deliverable dates when I need things at particular times. There’s only been one team member in my experience who thought that because I was framing things as requests, that meant he didn’t have to do them.

        This was the same team member who thought it was appropriate, when corrected on matters of fact by his manager (me) and a Senior Engineer (another lady), to engage in debate over these matters of fact and when we continued to point out his errors eventually say, in print, “well, I guess you girls won this round.” When coached from his manager (again, me) that such a response was sexist and therefore inappropriate for the workplace, his response was not to apologize but to start debating about the ways in which it could have been non-sexist and how touchy we were being.

        Yeah. He didn’t last long.

      7. TootsNYC*

        It did for General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg: “Take that ridge if at all practicable,” he told Richard Ewell, because he was being polite. He meant, “take that ridge.”
        Add in confusing orders to not “bring on a general engagement,” and Ewell didn’t take Culp’s Hill.

        That always makes me focus on being really, really clear. And it means that I say things like, “I’d like you to…” and “Please do…” or “I’m going to have you do…” or even “I’m going to ask you to…” Sometimes I ask “Can I get you to…?” And if it’s a question, I listen for the answer.
        Of course, sometimes I truly do mean, “Can you do this? Or is something else on your desk that I’m not aware of?” But then I specifically ask that.

        I do think that now and then I’ve had someone interpret it as a question, but not very often. However, even once it enough to break me of that habit, and I go back to the direct statement in a pleasant voice.

    2. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      Like Alison said above, it is possible to frame a request in a way that is confusing. I almost always use requests, and have almost zero issues with people not doing what I ask (except in cases where the person isn’t a great employee overall). The following, to me, are not confusing – but they also allow room for the person to respond if needed.
      I’m finished with this project. Would you please print out 15 copies and have them ready for the meeting by noon?
      (possible responses: “yes” Or “actually, I’m working on x right now. Would you prefer if I do this first?” or “the copier is on the fritz. Can I do it by 2pm after the repair guy comes, or should I go Kinkos and get them now?)
      I’d like to have this from you by Friday at 2pm. Are you able to do that?
      (“sure”, or “I’m on vacation Friday. I could do it by Monday at lunch, or if you really need it Friday, I’ll do it before I leave on Thursday”).
      While I do expect that requests not be ignored, I also expect that staff will start a conversation with me if there is some barrier so that I can be part of making the decision about whether something will get done. I have so many different things going on, that there’s no way I could know what each and every person has going on at every moment. If I don’t allow room for some conversation, I risk ending up with people who are (perhaps unnecessarily) feeling disrespected to stressed.

      1. Kelly L.*

        The requests I sometimes have trouble sussing are sort of…secretly implied requests? I have one boss who forwards me a lot of her email exchanges with other people. Sometimes, she’s trying to ask me to solve the person’s issue. Other times, she absolutely does not, I repeat does not, NOPE NOPE NO doesn’t want me to respond to it at all, it’s just an FYI. It took me a few months to figure out I had to ask her, every time she forwarded me something, whether it was an action item or an FYI, because guessing wrong would be trouble either way.

        1. Chocolate lover*

          One of my bosses made a habit of sending an “fyi” (so she said in her email) on a particular subject. Then one day, pitched a fit because no one was providing feedback and offering to do something about the subject. It was frustrating. She never asked anyone to do anything with the email, and honestly, it wasn’t something that actually required anything to be done (or even, that we had the authority to do something about). So no one did anything. I think that was shortly before she explicitly told a colleague that she (boss) expected us to read her mind.

          1. SherryD*

            Yes! In my experience, bosses are the worst for forwarding emails without adding an explanation as to why they’re forwarding it. Well, gee, I’ll just read your mind and get right on it, Boss! /rant

      2. Meg Murry*

        Yes – if someone says “could you” the answer should almost never be “no” – it is “yes” or “yes, but only if ___”. The only time a “no” is acceptable is if you actually physically can’t do something – and even then you should ask for the resources you need. i.e. – “no, I can’t because I can’t get to the folder on the server where the document is located, but if you give me access rights or email me the document and I can do it”.

        What burns me though are instructions with “should”. For whatever reason, I’m ok with requests that say “could you” where I understand that the answer is almost always yes – but instructions with “should” drive me crazy. I worked somewhere that filled up the work instructions with “shoulds” as in “you should have the your manager sign off on your TPS reports”. So 90% of the time, I had the manager sign off, but one time she was out of town but I had her verbal ok to go ahead and submit the report, so I submitted it without her signature, and it got rejected because it didn’t have a signature. And so on and so on for procedures. Basically what I later learned was “should” was code in that department’s procedures for “we expect you peons to do this step, but we make exceptions for the other department heads, so that’s why we wrote should and not must”.

        People, stop using “should” to mean “must” or “need to” or “shouldn’t” to mean “never” or “can’t”. I mean, I “should” eat 5 servings of vegetables a day, brush my teeth after every meal and exercise for 30 minutes 3x a week as well – but the world isn’t going to stop spinning if I don’t do all those things.

        1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          I have this is issue. I get request that are “should” or “could” and as a former consultant I *never* know how to answer!

        2. Pipette*

          Oh don’t get me started on the should/must. As a translator I come across those little weasels almost daily. When it’s obvious from context, I translate them as “must”. Although we “should” preserve modality in translation… ;)

        3. No Longer Passing By*

          Ah, the discretionary versus mandatory guidelines…. Contract disputes are built on this

    3. AdAgencyChick*

      The difference between a question and a suggestion is that a question demands an answer. If I ask, “Can you handle the XYZ project?” or even “Do you want to work on ABC?”* my direct report should say either “yes” or “no,” and if it’s “no,” self-aware people will usually give the reason (at which point I can either agree with that reason or ask the employee to reprioritize tasks). If I say, “Feel free to look into the XYZ project,” that’s not a prompt for a response, and a manager who does this shouldn’t be surprised if the employee chooses not to do it.

      *I avoid the “do you want to…” phrasing like hell, though. My dad does it to me all the time (“do you want to make me a sandwich?” instead of “could you please make me a sandwich?”) and it makes my hackles rise because the *honest* answer is very often “no.” So I refuse to put it that way to other people!

      1. Kelly L.*

        I’ve told this before, but at an old fast-food job where we all had a snarky rapport, my manager used to phrase everything like “Do you want to go slice tomatoes?” and I’d reply with “Nope! But I will!” It worked in that setting, but wouldn’t so much in some others!

      2. Ad Astra*

        I already posted about this below, but I had no idea some people used “Do you want to…” as a command until it got me in trouble at work. Every time my parents had asked me if I wanted to do something, it was because they were actually asking my opinion. I was mortified when I realized I’d been ignoring or refusing “direct” orders because my boss had a sort of teacher’s pet/people pleaser demeanor that I didn’t understand.

        1. Panda Bandit*

          That’s the thing though, it’s not a command. The exact words are asking someone’s opinion on if they want to do something.

            1. The Cosmic Avenger*

              I hope HR sided with you, Ad Astra! Although now that I’m older and (allegedly) wiser, if someone “asks” me if I want to do something and I don’t have a history with them to give me context, I might say “No…but I’d be happy to do it if that would help you out!”

            2. INTP*

              It just shows how wimpy or poor of a communicator your boss was that it even went to HR. The first time you said “No,” your boss should have asked you to clarify (like maybe you had too much on your plate or whatever) and explained that it wasn’t really a question about your preferences. Letting something get to HR level rather than enduring a moment of potential unpopularity by having to explain that you are giving your subordinate a directive like you’re expected to do…I just can’t with that type of person.

        2. Cordelia Naismith*

          I used to use “do you want to” until I started teaching. Having kids reply “No” because they honestly thought I was asking a question cured me of that pretty quickly.

          1. Cordelia Naismith*

            If I remember correctly, it went something like this:

            Me: Johnny, do you want to read page 25 aloud to the class?
            Johnny: No.
            The class laughs.
            Me: Let me rephrase. Read page 25 aloud to the class.

      3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

        That’s funny. I’m not familiar with the “do you want to” phraseology for “orders” but it does explain something.

        I get frustrated if I ask someone if they want to do something and they don’t answer the question. I mean, I seriously want to know if they WANT to do it, because…. I just asked if you want to do it!

        I didn’t realize that could be misinterpreted. It seems such a clear question.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          OMG. It should be, but not with people like my dad who do not understand how much “please” and “thank you” can grease a conversation.

        2. AcademiaNut*

          That’s a good point.

          If you’re genuinely asking, and the person is in any way subordinate to you, you could go with

          “Would you be interested in being involved in the Teapot decorating project?”
          “I’m going to get lunch – would you like to join me?”
          “Would you be able to do the Teapot decorating, or are you too busy this week?”

      4. Jen RO*

        Ugh, I have a coworker who always does that. “Do you want to come help me with basic thing #1342 I once again forgot how to do?”

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Yes, this drives me crazy because in my head, the response is always always “no” or “not really.” But of course I can’t say that.

      5. Margaret*

        This came up as an issue with an ex of mine, I used it all the time to ask him to do something I really wanted/needed him to do (e.g., “do you want to pick up X at the store on your way home?”); he interpreted it as actually asking if he wanted to do it.

        I realized that I’d picked it up at work, especially when I was in the position of “senior” which is in between staff and manager – you’re the person with the most detailed knowledge of the situation, and generally enough context/background to know how to handle it, but not enough experience and authority to fully make the call as to what to do, you had to get the ok from the manager/partner or ask them to do something. So asking the manager above you “Do you want to call the client to ask Y?” was the culturally accepted upwards management method, to essentially tell you manager what you needed them to do for you to do your job, without explicitly telling your manager to do something.

        Now that I’m at the manager letter, I generally use “could you…” type requests, both down and up. For staff, we don’t have direct reports but share staff with a loose team structure, so it is important to give them the opportunity to explain what else they have going on that might need to be prioritized/negotiated. And upward, we’re obviously giving a direction to someone above us, but we have enough authority at manager level, and are the primary workflow manager, so it’s ok to explain what they can do to help us and ask if they can.

        1. Three Thousand*

          This came up as an issue with an ex of mine, I used it all the time to ask him to do something I really wanted/needed him to do (e.g., “do you want to pick up X at the store on your way home?”); he interpreted it as actually asking if he wanted to do it.

          I’m sorry, I just don’t believe this at all. That’s not a question a human would ask. I don’t like Steven Pinker much, but even he recognizes that every human on earth knows when someone says “I was wondering if you would be able to give me a ride to the airport,” they’re not telling you they were idly ruminating on whether you had the physical ability to drive a car. They’re saying “Drive me to the airport.”

          Your ex didn’t want to go to the store and thought he could pretend he didn’t understand you. I guarantee he, like all other humans, regularly communicates with others without barking out direct orders when he wants them to do something.

          1. Decimus*

            I think this might be an “ask” versus “guess” culture thing again. I tend to be extremely literal-minded and would assume “do you want to” was a question asking if I wanted to – in other words, it was a non-essential item. But then I’m also the sort of person who, when my wife tells me “dinner is ready” at 12:30pm, I ask “but what about lunch?”

          2. Ad Astra*

            But they’re not saying “Drive me to the airport.” They’re saying “Will you please drive me to the airport?” The only person you command to take you to the airport is a cab driver.

            “Do you want to pick up X at the store on your way home?” could easily be interpreted as “Do you think we need X badly enough for you to make an extra stop?” And the ex might say “Nah, we have enough X” or “I can live without X just fine, so maybe you should pick some up tomorrow morning if you really want it” or “I’m really tired, so I’d rather come straight home, since you’re asking me what I want.”

          3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

            I disagree.

            When I ask my husband, “Do you want to pick up milk on your way home?” I literally, mean, do you want to (pick it up on your way home vs go out tomorrow morning and get it vs do without milk until later).

            This whole conversation is funny to me because, like my response to something further up, it never occurred to me people would say “do you want to” if they weren’t asking, “do you WANT to”. Meanwhile, the husband and I had more than one (maybe many) spats over this, him irritated that I’m telling him to pick up milk and not just coming out and asking him to pick up.

            I’m like what is *****wrong**** with your hearing! I ASKED YOU IF YOU WANTED TO, how is that hard to understand?

            “of course I don’t want to”





            1. Connie-Lynne*

              Ha! My husband and I have the same thing, except that for me “do you want to …” often translates to “I want this done but I am too lazy to make shift myself. If you want to do it more than me, I’d sure love it!”

              I mean, if he says “no, I don’t really want to” it’s the door to “I don’t want to, either, but I want it done… does that change anything?” Sometimes it does, sometimes I have to get off my lazy butt and do it myself. *grin*

          4. Elsajeni*

            Well, but “No, I can’t” is a legitimate response to “I was wondering if…”, and “No, let’s wait until we do our regular grocery shopping this weekend” is a legitimate response to “Do you want to pick up X on your way home?”, even though in both cases you can probably guess that the person asking would rather you said “Yes, of course.” I think that’s the point — “Do you want to” allows room for an answer of “Well, no, actually” in a way that “Could you please” or “I need you to” doesn’t.

          5. Margaret*

            Three Thousand – Well, there are many reasons he’s now an ex. :)

            But I think to at least degree he truly saw “do you want to” as different than “would you” – would you is still not a direct order, but makes it clear that it’s contingent on them being nice and *willing* to do a favor, rather than whether they *want* to do a favor.

    4. _ism_*

      This is something I have seen those on the autism spectrum, in particular, struggle with.

  3. AE*

    I once supervised someone who didn’t do what I asked, and when I followed up she said she thought it was optional because I’d said “please.” I was just raised that way, and she was from South Carolina, so I would have thought she was too. I’m not an order-barker, but apparently for her it was necessary. Nobody else I’ve supervised has had a problem with the word “please.”

    1. Cordelia Naismith*

      What? The word “please” doesn’t turn a command into a request! It just makes the command polite.

  4. Kelly L.*

    And please, please, don’t say “no rush” when you mean “RUSH! RUSH LIKE YOUR HAIR IS ON FIRE! I will be checking in on this in 30 minutes!”

    1. Ann*

      YES. It’s bizarre that when my boss sends me something to do at 9am and tells me “by the end of the day,” he thinks that means the same thing as “within the next hour.” Why????

      1. Kelly L.*

        There was someone on a thread a month or two ago whose boss would say “COB” and mean more like 3 hours before the close of business.

        1. nona*

          I remember that one! The boss was irritated that OP didn’t guess that “COB” meant around 3 p.m.

          1. zora*

            The way I remember it was that the boss didn’t actually know what “COB” stood for, so he assumed they would understand that he meant 3pm. But you shouldn’t use an acronym if you don’t know it actually stands for Close of Business! Oy, I already have a thing about overuse of acronyms so that one made me particularly annoyed with that boss.

            1. Kelly L.*

              I think that was just one of our guesses–that he latched onto a buzzword without knowing its meaning.

  5. Swarley*

    Yeah, my managers have always communicated with me in the way that Alison mentioned. It’d be pretty hard for me to misinterpret something like: “Hey Swarley, could you review the teapot proposal and let me know your thoughts by the end of the day?” If someone isn’t grasping that then they really don’t understand the dynamic of the manager/employee relationship, or they’re just an asshat.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      Yes. I’ve only had trouble with people who are grasping at reasons to avoid doing something – that’s not miscommunication, it’s making excuses.

  6. Three Thousand*

    I tend to think people who interpret requests from a boss as optional are acting in bad faith because they’re lazy or don’t respect the boss’s authority and think they have plausible deniability. Those same people would also resent being given direct commands.

    1. JMegan*

      This, exactly. Unless the boss is a really poor communicator (ie, everybody on the team is getting it wrong), there’s a good chance that the employee is deliberately misinterpreting.

    2. AE*

      Yep, but what can you do? You’re not a mind reader. You can’t say “You knew full well what I meant, you slacker.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Well, you can say, “If I ask you to do something and you can’t or think there’s reason not to, I expect you to come back and tell me that, not just ignore the question.”

    3. INTP*

      It depends on how the manager phrases things. When it’s something like “Could you send me the Teapot Proposal by Friday at 3pm?” I assume that this is a directive (with an out if I really can’t finish the report by then, but I’d need to explain that on the spot) and I think you’d need to be pretty socially oblivious and professionally inexperienced not to interpret that. But when I was a TA, I had a boss that would send emails worded like true suggestions: “Here’s the information for a local Teapot Educators meeting this weekend in case anyone is interested. Contact Dr. Swarley to join the carpool!” Then she would get really pissy about it when we didn’t understand and go, though in an equally indirect way (like giving a lecture on how part of professionalism is attending meetings in your field, despite that most of us were studying a very different and applied area of the field and she wanted us to attend pedagogy-focused events). Academia is sort of a hotbed of bad management but I imagine there are some equally indirect communicators in all fields.

      Another one I had difficulty with when I was younger (like pre-college graduation) was the “Do you want to ____?” It’s just a very weakly phrased directive but I would interpret it as an honest question, seeing if I was interested in taking the opportunity to do that task, unlike the “Could you ____?” I still think it’s a really obnoxious way to make requests.

      1. Rebeck*

        This! We had a new manager who phrased things as ‘what would you think if we did X?’ We would explain why X was not a good idea, and the matter would close. Two months later we were hauled over the coals for not having implemented X.

    4. NickelandDime*

      Agreed Three Thousand. You know you’re supposed to do what your manager asked you to do. I think the OP might have another issue – it’s not what you’re asking your folks to do, or how you’re asking – is that they don’t want to do it. They also sense weakness and are trying to force the issue.

  7. Yet Another Allison*

    Usually when I am asking if someone can do X by Y time, I am asking if Y is a reasonable deadline for completing X. Yes, there is a question in there, but that doesn’t mean doing X is optional. It never occurred to me that someone would interpret it that way. I’ll make sure I clarify what I am asking (which I usually do… but now I’ll be even more careful).

  8. J.B.*

    Deborah Tannen in talking from 9 to 5 talks about men’s and women’s communication styles at work. Either direct or indirect communication can be clear. Generically, women tend towards indirect communication and men toward direct. Subordinates need to adapt to the boss’ style whatever it is. However, sometimes indirect communicators are criticized by other peers or superiors with the opposite style.

    Interestingly she talked about cultures and subcultures with more indirect styles – Japan being a clear example. But also the US military. Basically that the general’s suggestion was not a suggestion.

    1. neverjaunty*

      I was just thinking this. And also because using a direct communication style, as a female manager, can easily result in being viewed very negatively.

  9. Richard*

    I have seen a regional difference here. When my team moved up to the DC area from the deep south and started working with another team in New York, we found that nothing was getting done. It took some redirection from one of our executives to understand why. To quote Capt Kirk, we needed to add more “Colorful metaphors” to our speech, and also needed to be more direct. I’ve also found that there are people from certain areas that, if they don’t understand how to do what you’re asking, will find every opportunity to find excuses for why not to do things.

    If you find your communications aren’t working, then make sure to add a few questions back to the people you’re talking with to make sure they understand what you’re asking. “So, when do you think you would be able to get this done? Do you think you’ll have any problems with this? You’ve got the cover page for the TPS report, right?”

    I’ll admit that early in my career, I had trouble with people using “we” when they meant “you”. “I think we need to fix the problem,” from someone who was able to fix it, meaning “I think you need to fix it, junior peon” More directness would have helped me, at least.

    1. Anon for this*

      My boss has a tendency to send an email with a meeting, event, etc. to a group of people and ask, “Is this something we should be attend/be involved in/do?” It is hard to tell when he’s actually asking for our opinions and when he’s really saying “Someone needs to do this. Which of you will it be?”

      1. OfficePrincess*

        Sigh, and if you say it actually is a good idea when the boss is looking for someone to take it on, well, guess who just volunteered.

  10. Former Borders Refugee*

    I prefer a direct ask (“Could you do X?”) a polite commend (“Please do X”). Neither of those are weak. They indicate respect and clear directives.

    I had a bookstore manager who would only use “hey, do you wanna do X?” when telling people what to do. It was super frustrating because he seemed to think that asking people directly would make us not like him, when it was his terrible management skills and inability to clearly state what he wanted people to do that resulted in grumbling employees.

  11. Ad Astra*

    I once had a manager who was a great guy but had never managed people before (other than freelancers) and hadn’t quite gotten it down. He was king of the “suggestion” request, or even worse, he’d say “Do you want to do [task that I wasn’t interested in]?” So I’d say “No thanks” or “Sure, I’ll give that some thought…” and then continue doing something else.

    I didn’t realize until we were meeting with an HR rep about performance issues that these weren’t things I was supposed to just say no to. It was a learning experience for both of us.

    1. Sadsack*

      I can’t imagine being asked by my manager, “Do you want to do…?” and responding with “No, thanks!” However, I think it stinks that the manager didn’t explain himself to you before getting HR involved. He could have easily said that he meant that he’d like you to do it instead of taking your no thanks and going to HR with it.

      1. Ad Astra*

        In his defense, it was more the Big Boss who got HR involved. I suspect that sometimes Big Boss would tell my manager to make me do something, and he used “Do you want to…” to pass that on when he himself didn’t think it was a great idea (or at least not a priority) but didn’t want to be insubordinate. And it was often “Do you want to do this thing that is pretty far outside the scope of your typical duties and might interfere with the other projects you’re working on?” so it really did seem optional, like he was offering me a chance to switch things up just for funsies.

        Big Boss sometimes didn’t understand the details of what my manager and I did on a daily basis, so some of her suggestions were outside our capabilities (and the capabilities of our software) or campaigns we didn’t think would be successful based on our knowledge of how this stuff worked. She was rarely satisfied with my performance, and I think it was because we weren’t on the same page about what success looked like in this role. Also, she was just kind of a jerk sometimes. Or maybe I was bad at my job.

      2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        The only time I was every asked “Do you want to…” by a manager was from a very direct communicator, who was genuinely interested in my opinions and was not always sure where my teams work differentiated from corporate…think Department of Teapot Marketing vs. Marketing for Teapots Unlimited.

        It would take me a minute to adjust to the idea that my current boss isn’t asking if I wanted to do something, but really just phrasing a request differently.

    2. INTP*

      I hate the “do you want to….?” as well. When I was much younger, I thought it was a genuine question. Like I could say no and that I preferred to do other tasks and they’d ask someone else.

      Even though I know what it means now, I find it obnoxious. If you’re going to tell people what to do, just tell them. Don’t make it more confusing for other people just so you can appear more likeable.

  12. Kiki*

    I actually work with two people who *always* say no if you ask either one to do something. It’s said as a joke, but it’s a passive/aggressive joke that’s been going on for years and I’ve never laughed.

    1. Sadsack*

      Yeah, that’s annoying. I wonder what the response would be to “Well, then, I’ll find someone who will do it.”

      1. Kiki*

        They just say “great” and go back to whatever they were doing. Seriously. I am not their manager, and we don’t do 360 reviews here so there’s really nothing I can do about it except avoid asking them for anything. I ended up doing a bunch of data entry last winter…my supervisor asked me why and I replied honestly. I said I had asked X to do it, he said no, so I am doing it. I make twice what x makes…needless to say it did not go over very well. People like that are exhausting to deal with! And data entry is so zen…it’s easier and faster if I do it myself. sigh

        1. Judy*

          Just because there is not a formal 360 review process doesn’t mean that you can’t give feedback to someone’s manager if they did things well or didn’t do things well or didn’t do things at all. Especially if it is affecting how you do your work.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          In the data entry example, I’d go to your manager and say, “I asked Joe to do this and he said no. The only other solution I have is to do it myself, and I suspect the company would rather pay Joe to do it than me.”

    2. Mints*

      My old (terrible) manager did this too, and I had forgotten about it. Like really basic “Could you sign this timecard?” “Nope! *hahahaha*” and I just stood there with the timecards in hand until he was done laughing. I wouldn’t even smile it was so exhausting to go along with that nonsense

    3. Amber Rose*

      Reminds me of playing the “Yes, Let’s” game.

      It’s a discipline game they made us play where you had to say (yell, really) “yes, let’s!” to every request no matter how miserable. After a while the more sarcastic ones started to yell “Let’s not” and laughing like mad while the rest of us rolled our eyes. Like, why are you even here if you don’t want to do anything? You had to know when you signed up that it would be miserable, bone aching hell at least part of the time.

  13. Jillociraptor*

    I think that last paragraph is key. Communication is usually clearest when expectations are clearest, and I suppose when there’s at least a decent culture of respect. There have been times when both direct requests and requests phrased as questions have felt icky to me as a manager and as an employee, and it’s all about context. What you do says a lot about what you care about, but it can be easy to fall into the trap of obsessing about your “management style” rather than actually looking at your vision and expectations for management. In my experience, once you’re feeling more confident about the latter, the former becomes natural and obvious.

  14. JB (not in Houston)*

    I’m fine with “could you get this to me by Monday” or “please handle this issue.” What I hate is “would you mind doing/would it be too much trouble if you do XYZ?” said in a way that sounds like I have an option to refuse, when in fact I do not. In other words, I hate things that are intentionally phrased to not sound like an order when they are very much an order, especially when the desired answer involves you sounding like you are basically granting a favor. That’s not phrased well, but I mean things like “Would you mind doing this thing for me?” And then expecting an answer that is some variation of “I absolutely would not mind.” Because sometimes I do!

    I’ve had bosses that want to be the “cool boss,” so they never wanted to sound like the boss. But if you didn’t do exactly what they wanted you to do, they were Not Happy, including if they were shuffling work off on you that they are supposed to do, or something that isn’t even work-related. I had one in particular who would be unhappy if you said anything like a cheerful “You’re the boss!” in response to a “would you mind” command (which was my ineffective compromise between “I mind, but I will do it because you’re telling me to” and the untruthful “of course I don’t mind”). You had to act like you honestly didn’t mind at all, whatever it was you were asked to do. And then he would follow up with several, “oh thank you so much, I really appreciate it, I really appreciate it” type of remarks, as though we were really were doing him a favor. We were all supposed to pretend we were operating in a work place where everything he asked was truly optional, and anything we did was something we were happy to do. THAT drives me crazy.

    1. Sadsack*

      Eh, I think sometimes these “orders” just come out that way without much thought. My manager will sometimes use variations of “can you do me a favor/would you mind/can you /do you have time to” and it doesn’t matter to me at all. There’s nothing personal in it and I don’t think he is insecure about his authority or whatever. He just wants me to do something and probably hasn’t put a whole lot of thought into the exact verbiage he is using to get that done.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Oh, I agree that’s true when some people phrase things that way–and it doesn’t bother me at all in those cases–which is why I added the part about intentionally phrasing it as not-an-order. With the specific former boss I was mentioning, he intended to make it sound like a request for an optional favor. He definitely wanted to make it sound like he was not giving a direct order–these were things that did not fall into our day-to-day jobs, either things that were his responsibility and probably shouldn’t have been delegated or things that weren’t at all work-related. He liked to portray himself and think of himself as the cool boss, someone who was practically not a boss at all. In reality, if he wanted something, it was not optional, no matter what it was. But he was visibly displeased if you tried to reframe it as something he was telling you to do. You very much had to act like you truly didn’t mind doing it, so he could tell himself that if you didn’t want to do it, you’d have said so.

        He was also the most passive aggressive person I’ve ever encountered, and I come from a whole family of passive aggressive types.

      2. Emily*

        There’s also an extreme where every directive is requested as a “favor” not only in words, but in tone, body language, etc. “Could you do me a really big favor if it’s not too much trouble…?” not in a “cool guy” way but in an obsequious way. I’ve really tried to evaluate my own tone and body language when accepting assignments to make sure I haven’t somehow given my boss the impression that he needs to approach me this way, but I think I’ve figured out that he asks for a favor when he’s on high alert about the task. It’s…confusing.

        1. Malissa*

          “can you do me a favor?” Words that make me absolutely cringe. I broke quite a few people of this at my old work place. I got asked that so much. I finally started answering “no.” Every single time. Followed by an explanation that I would be happy to help them out, but I do not do any favors. The word favor implies that I am going beyond what I normally do and that you will owe me something in return. If I’m at work and what you need is work related, it’s not a favor, it’s my job. And I want nobody ever owing me anything, that is the start of the road that leads to disappointment.

  15. Amber Rose*

    Gotta really watch that last one. A coworker asked my manager if he could do a certain thing about an invoicing issue and she said “you can but I would talk to Accountant first.”

    What she meant was “do nothing until you talk to Accountant.”

    What he heard was “go ahead and do the thing.”

    The resulting shit storm was pretty ridiculous and took most of a week to resolve. Also it entirely broke our accounting and inventory program for a full day. Clarity: super important.

    1. Kiki*

      I have to admit, I find coworker’s take a bit confusing. I read that as talk to accounting and get an okay first, then go ahead. And it’s crystal clear to me that’s what he meant. Maybe this is a regional thing?

      1. Lynn Whitehat*

        Maybe? I think of “I would…” as indicating an optional or stylistic preference. Especially “You can, but I would…” Why say I can if I can’t? I could have easily made the same mistake as Amber’s co-worker.

      2. Amber Rose*

        It’s true that I read it the same as you, but I can also see how you might get an interpretation like “if you know how to do it, go ahead, otherwise see Accountant.”

    2. A Minion*

      Yeah, I get the “I would…” a lot from my predecessor. She moved up when I took over her position, and she’s not my direct supervisor, but she’s still helping me with this job as I need it and she uses that phrase with almost every directive she gives me.
      “I would e-mail Jane about that first.”
      “I would run those reports before the end of the month.”

      It’s annoying, and sometimes I’d like to respond with, “Well, since I’m not you, I’ll go ahead and do what I’d like to do.”, but I know it doesn’t come from a desire to annoy me..she’s just trying to help.

    3. No Longer Passing By*

      Late response but I think the logic is that if even the boss would speak to x first, why would coworker not? She’s the boss and still would defer to someone else. I think that’s a huge contextual cue.

  16. NotMyRealName*

    Here’s another one: don’t say “we” need to do something if you really mean “you” need to do something.

    1. pandq*

      Yeah – I used to have a boss who would frame directions this way: “Let’s get x done”….”We are going to do y.” I had a good enough relationship with him to reply “Let’s?” – so the Let US means me, right? Or WE are going to do y? That means I am going to do y, right?

      1. Kelly L.*

        I had an old boss, many years ago, who would practically jump out of her seat Hermione-style to volunteer for special projects during meetings. And then the second the meeting was over, delegate the entire thing to me…

    2. _ism_*

      That’s also OK in some contexts, but it really gets my goat too when it’s used in a way that doesn’t mean we’re actually going to be working as a duo on it and it’s something I’m primarily supposed to handle.

    3. fond of jam*

      Oh, my husband does this and it drives me bonkers.
      “We should really take the garbage out tonight.”
      …It’s not a two-person job. Do you mean that YOU are about to take the garbage out, or are you asking ME to take the garbage out?

    4. Fee*


      I came here just to say specifically that. I don’t mind being asked or told, but ‘we’ to me means ‘you and I’ – and if ‘you’ are the boss and say ‘we’ need to do it, I think it means ‘you’ intend to take the lead. I just encountered this recently for the first time with a new boss. Thankfully the task was minor enough that ‘I’ was able to do it when I realised that’s what she’d meant.

    5. No Longer Passing By*

      I’m late to this but law firms use the imperial we. So in external communications, we say we. “We did this” or “we seek this” or “We were at court” when we typically means that 1 assigned attorney. Because of that I cannot imagine using “we” internally. Although in staff meetings, people have used “we” in place of their department or division even if it was a 1-person department. And, of course, I’ve heard “we,” quickly followed by “when I saw ‘we’ I mean you.” So never any confusion here.

      But I can see how it would be confusing when there are multiple people in the conversation and all are internal staff within the same department or team.

  17. Jubilance*

    Maybe this is a MN thing, but I find that people here do a lot of “it would be great if you could do X” or “Someone should really look at Y” instead of just asking or even directing you to complete it. To me, those are very ambigous and I wouldn’t take those statements as directions. I’ve gotten into the habit of confirming what my manager is asking me to do and the deadline because it can be framed as a low-level, if you have the time, type of priority rather than a deliverable they are looking for soon.

    Anyone else ever experience wording like that?

    1. NicoleK*

      I tend to use similar language during meetings (with my boss and other managers) to avoid appearing pushy. However, with my team, I tend to use “can you…” “please do…”

    2. OfficePrincess*

      Ugh, giving instructions to “someone”. “Someone should really look at Y” needs to be followed by “Henrietta, could you please take that on?”. If you don’t give “someone” a name, you’re either going to be disappointed or doing it yourself.

      1. Emily*

        There’s a reason why, in Red Cross training, they teach you to tell someone specifically to call 911 instead of yelling “somebody call 911!” You might think in that scenario of all scenarios, you’d wind up with too many people on the phone instead of too few, that has not been my experience in real life!

    3. Liza*

      Jubilance, that’s very familiar to me! I’m a non-native Minnesotan who has soaked up a lot of Minnesotanisms (though I try not to use the ones you mentioned, because I do like to be understood even by people who don’t speak Minnesotan :-) A lot of native Minnesotans have a culture of indirect requests like that, and also of understatement. My favorite personal example of the latter:

      A New England doctor: “How were things when you were off antidepressants?”
      Me: “Well, it was kinda OK.”
      ANEd, puzzled: “Then why did you go back on antidepressants?”

      To me, “kinda OK” in that tone of voice meant “really not very good at all,” and to the person I was talking to, it clearly meant “no problems here!” Ever since then, I’ve been careful to speak New England to that doctor instead of speaking Minnesotan.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Oh! I have an ex who understates everything. If you say “It’s cold out,” he’ll go “It’s a little chilly.” If you say you loved the movie, he goes “It wasn’t a bad little movie.” And he doesn’t actually not think it’s cold, and he really enjoyed the movie! I’m not sure where this comes from; he’s not from Minnesota!

        1. Liza*

          Your ex’s “not a bad little movie” reminds me of a (Minnesotan) friend’s “well, that wasn’t awful!” for something that went really well. :-)

    4. Dana*

      Hah, I do this when my boyfriend and dogs are in the room and I’m trying to clean up and want help. “Someone should take out the trash…” Boyfriend usually gets the hint, but he’s definitely tried to name one of the dogs as the “someone” I was talking to.

    5. LCL*

      I have heard this, and thought it was exclusively a left coast thing. Now I know why so many people from Minnesota move out here, they feel at home!

    6. Sunshine Brite*

      MN hand raise *sheepishly. I did that with my first mentee at first. He’s my age and I wasn’t quite sure his background or experience with the program and I needed to play politics a bit so I was real light-footed until I realized he needed a more direct tone. Direct is not my first instinct so it’s hard to reframe things without feeling rude.

  18. Jipsy's Mom*

    I almost always use the “can you please do x thing” phrasing with my staff. Like Alison mentioned, it does allow them to say “actually, I have this other task that landed on my plate that needs to be addressed ASAP – is there flexibility with x thing?” It has never been an issue for me to phrase work assignments as requests, but they’re all diligent workers, and I know things do legitimately come up in our roles and try to be as flexible as possible.

  19. FJ*

    I agree with Alison – I’ve never seen “could you please do x” interpreted as an anything other than “do x, but tell me if you have deadline/priority conflicts.” I could see where some workplaces wouldn’t work that way, so it does have to be somewhat workplace specific.

    The “we should” vs “you should” thing is also very frustrating to me, but it’s also really hard to avoid in my workplace. So, some things are not always as clear as they should be.

    In my job, we have a list of priorities for the next few weeks that we are always working through. People on the team pick/volunteer what they want to work on from that list. It helps that people have a sense of ownership of picking what to work on. If no one volunteers, then they get “voluntold” to do something.

    1. FJ*

      Follow-up – In our planning with the team, I will often say “I am voluntelling you to work on this” – We have a pretty good working relationship, so this works pretty well.

  20. Virginian*

    I always say, “Would you be willing to do X,” but sometimes I wonder if I sound too weak and it doesn’t help that I’m still new to managing professional staff.

    1. _ism_*

      If these are tasks that are part of their stated job duties, then it’s safe to assume that yes, they are willing – it’s their job after all. If it’s something clearly outside their normal responsibilities, asking their willingness is probably OK. (I get asked if I’m willing to help out with minor setup for catered lunches sometimes, and it has nothing to do with my job, and if I have time I am glad to help. It’s different when they want me to do something related to my job, and around here most managers just use “Could you please do this by X time” or “I need this done please.” Nobody really barks orders and nobody is over-polite about it either.)

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        I mostly agree with _ism_, but if you are really asking them to do something outside their normal responsibilities, I would suggest only asking if they would “be willing” to do something if it’s truly optional. There are other less direct ways of telling them to do it (e.g., “could you please”) that doesn’t so much sound like something they could turn down if they wanted to. “Could you please” is a very widely used way of softening a direct order, and so it’s not going to be misunderstood or taken the wrong way by most people. “Would you be willing” sounds very much like you’re actually asking. Or at least, it does to me because in my neck of the woods, it’s not commonly used as anything but an actual question. That may not be true where you are.

    2. Dana*

      I think that’s too many qualifiers. You mean “Do X.” but you add “Would you do X?” then you further add “Would you be willing to do X?” I feel like it weakens it with every layer and sounds unnecessarily hesitant to me.

  21. Allison*

    When my boss asks me “can you do X?” I’m not interpreting that as “Do you want to do X?” but rather “I need you to do X, are you able to do that?”

  22. AnnieNonymous*

    In a way I think there’s a 4th category, which is when bosses go too far with “This is NOT a suggestion.” I like that the OP is thinking about this at all. We’ve all had bosses that started piling unreasonable amounts of work on us and wouldn’t take “no” or “I need help” for an answer.

    To OP: Definitely ask (and give the employee the option of saying no – if possible) if your requests come close to delegating work that is fairly removed from the original job description. I’ve written about my former terrible job here before; I was moved from data entry to customer service without being asked, because my boss figured that since I worked there already, I should take on any task. I left that job a month later. I would not have accepted a customer service position in the first place, especially in that particular field, with the sort of customers that this industry tends to appeal to.

  23. FatBigot*

    Of course, you must see what managers really mean:

    ♦ I hear what you say
    What They Mean: I disagree and do not wish to discuss it any further

    ♦ With the greatest respect
    What They Mean: I think you are a fool

    ♦ Not bad
    What They Mean: Good or very good

    ♦ Quite good
    What They Mean: A bit disappointing

    ♦ Perhaps you would like to think about…./it would be nice if….
    What They Mean: This is an order. Do it or be prepared to justify yourself

    ♦ Oh, by the way/Incidentally
    What They Mean: This is the primary purpose of our discussion

    ♦ Very interesting
    What They Mean: I don’t agree/I don’t believe you

    ♦ Could we consider the options
    What They Mean: I don’t like your idea

    ♦ I’ll bear it in mind
    What They Mean: I will do nothing about it

    ♦ Perhaps you could give that some more thought
    What They Mean: It is a bad idea. Don’t do it

    ♦ I’m sure it is my fault
    What They Mean: It is your fault

    ♦ That is an original point of view/brave option to consider
    What They Mean: You must be crazy

    ♦ Not entirely helpful
    What They Mean: Completely useless

  24. Bruce*

    Here’s a weird addendum–my boss always thanks me for doing my job. Like, “Hey, thanks for all of your help with [assign duties].” I usually respond with a “of course!” but am I the only one who finds it weird? If I go above and beyond, please, bring on the praise, but if I am literally just doing my job? It kind of feels like they are surprised that I am capable at doing my job.

    Am I the only one who feels that way?

    1. Cat*

      I always thank people for doing things for me even if it’s their job and appreciate it when they thank me for doing my job. Where I feel like it gets weird is when I get copious praise for something minor. (“Thank you SO much for fixing the header on that document. You did SUCH a good job with that.”)

      1. Abby*

        I agree. Most managers at my workplace always give a quick “Great, thanks” or “Okay, thanks” to their employees when an assigned task is completed– I think it’s mainly out of habit, but you do feel much more appreciated than if they just responded with a simple “okay.”

  25. HR Caligula*

    Caligula- Everyone, to the team building orgy exercise, now!

    Un-Caligula- Please be timely to the team building orgy exercise, everyone’s participation is encouraged.

  26. Cat*

    I normally you a “can you” formulation, but this post made me realize I sent my assistant an email today saying something to the effect of “please finalize this document and hold it to file tomorrow.” I guess I feel like that’s approximately equivalent to the request format politeness-wise, and she knows she can tell me if she’s swamped and can’t do it.

  27. Purr purr purr*

    I think it depends on the procedure for the company you’re working for as well. I have to work with a few managers in my job and most of them tell me what they want done, propose a deadline and then they ask if that deadline is reasonable and react accordingly based on how I answer. That’s the procedure for our company and according to procedure I’m actually allowed to refuse tasks if I’m too busy for them. Most of the managers are great about assigning tasks, especially when I tell them I can’t get something done when they want it done by and I propose a new deadline, but there’s one manager who frequently ignores everything I say. That person always tries to make their work top priority (I work on multiple projects) and then when I tell them I can’t get it done by the time they want, they take it personally and imply that I’m denying them deliberately or give the feeling that I’m being obstructive. I usually find this manager gives me an unreasonable deadline for the workload too, e.g. I’ll be given two days for something that would take five days, so once again my explanation of why I can’t do that in that time frame becomes an attitude problem with me.

    So I think assigning tasks has to be done under your work culture, whether that’s telling or asking. It doesn’t make you look weak to ask; to me it makes you considerate of other people’s workload. I guess it depends on exactly how you’re saying it and the norms in your industry though.

  28. Sunshine Brite*

    I don’t like it as a question now in my current position because we’re encouraged to push back when we get overwhelmed to slow down the flow. If you need it, you need it. But we’re always all busy at all times and all are always behind at all times so anything we can get off our plate we do. Makes less-prioritized but still needed requests are hard to fill sometimes.

    Plus, some people never step up which overloads others. There was a really good group of people who had about 1.5 years more experience than me when I arrived and now there’s only 1 left because they got burnt out fulfilling all sorts of requests that others let slide by. The managers tried to spread it around, but if it wasn’t required some people weren’t doing it.

  29. Shortie*

    To me, it depends on both the recipient and the request. I have one employee who thinks all questions are optional, so I am very careful to say, “Please complete X” to him. If it is optional, I’ll frame it as a question instead. I have another employee who totally gets that, with me, “Will you complete X” means the same thing as “please complete X” so I can say either one to him, but I have to go above and beyond if it truly is optional. For example, “Do you have time to complete X? And this is really a question, not a directive, so you can say no.”

  30. Anonymous Educator*

    I’ve generally taken anything my boss (any boss I’ve had) suggests, requests, or orders to be essentially an order. At almost every job I’ve had (with some notable exceptions where I was essentially tasked with doing more than two full-time jobs’ worth of work), I’ve been so efficient that I can do pretty much everything required of me and more, so it hasn’t been an issue. When it has been an issue, I just mention on the spot “I probably won’t get around to X until Y because I’m doing A, B, and C. Is that okay?” The idea is that if boss thinks X is more important than A, B, or C, she’ll let me know.

  31. TL17*

    I once had a manager who was fond of saying “do you want to…” when she asked my colleagues and me to do tasks. It became clear this was her method of telling us what to do, but trying not to make it seem like she was telling us what to do. But, we expected her to tell us what to do because she was the project leader and was supposed to tell us what to do.

    It also became clear she used the “do you want to…” especially when she wanted to delegate an unsavory task. She was once in a feud with a vendor. I didn’t know that, so when she asked me if I wanted to call Vendor about XYZ, I did it & was surprised that Vendor bit my head off and commented that she had someone else call.

    We got wise to it and would say, “no, I think I want to go outside instead” or something similar when she started with her “requests.” We finally told her what the problem was and she didn’t get it.

  32. mdv*

    I have to admit, after working for my boss for 17 years, there are days when she says “could you do X?” And I say “nope!” with a smile….. Because OF COURSE I’m going to do anything she asks me to do, and right away. It never fails to make her laugh, which is the only reason I say “no” at all. It helps that half the time, X is already finished.

  33. Lionness*

    I went over this with my team early one. I have two ways of framing things

    “Hi Stefan, I need X done. Please send it to me completed” means stop what you’re doing and do it now, unless another timeline is given.


    “Hey Moria, can you do Y” which literally should be translated into “please look at your workload and tell me if it makes sense for you to stop now and do Y at this moment.”

  34. Wo Fat*

    Should managers ask or tell when assigning work?

    In a superficial way, this reminds me of the Machiavellian question, “Is it better for a ruler to be loved or to be feared?”

  35. heidi*

    But what about when it is a peer/ co worker giving the directive for work assignment or to request follow up with you?

    Instead of the usual, “in regards to our conversation we recently had, would you please follow up with vendor XYZ Inc and inform them they delivered the wrong part?” in our company culture I have coworker whose hierarchal alignment is the same as mine just in a different department my department supports sends requests as ” to follow up with our conversation, you will call vendor XYZ Inc and inform them they delivered the wrong part”. Every request he now sends me is telling instead of asking as if he’s now barking orders towards me. There is a strong difference between asking and telling and as noted above, the tone in the directive is not in line with how our co workers normally communicate to each other regardless of where they fall on the org chart we al mostly have mutual respect for our roles.

    This person micromanages and often suggest process changes where changes don’t necessarily need to be changed nor is it in his place to make suggestions–it’s just different but not as the same was as he would like them to be done. Along with that, his explanations are always long winded and confrontational leaving the work atmosphere most of us are starting to feel we can’t go to our manager to improvement or training. In my situation, I feel I’m damned if I do damned if I don’t because he nitpicks and analyses most my work I send to him. My manager is aware of his condescending and almost dictatorship behavior and has even pointed it out but since I work with him continually, it affects me more than anyone else in my department and I’m looking for ways to stop this way of him treating me this way before I take it up to my manager.

    1. A*

      He says, “To follow up with our conversation, you will call vendor XYZ Inc and inform them they delivered the wrong part.”

      I’d respond, “To improve interdepartmental communication, you will treat me as an equal and request my assistance when needed.”

      Yeah, I step on toes sometimes, especially when people are accustomed to me being “nice.” So be prepared for blowback if you stand up for yourself. But I don’t see how else you’re going to change his behavior on your own. You can either address it directly, respond passive-aggressively, ask your manager for intervention, or let this guy continue to boss you around. IME, a visible spine is the closest thing to a magic “Don’t Be a Jerk” button.

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