should managers ask or tell when assigning work?

A reader writes:

When dealing with people who 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.

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 156 comments… read them below }

    1. CmdrShepard4ever*

      I don’t know why (maybe I have matured) but when I was younger I used to hate when I was “asked” to do something when really I was being ordered to do it. It felt disingenuous to me, you are not really asking me if I can do that you are telling me to do that. “Can you grab xyz from the store room?” really means “Go grab xyz from the store room.” I think I have mellowed out, I was maybe trying to be too much of a smart ass, and placing too much emphasis on technical/exact words. .”

      I think now I’m come to realize that are certain niceties/pleasantries are not necessary or technically correct but help the world go round a lot smother. So personally now I don’t really care either way if I am being asked or told to do something as long as it is in a nice or neutral tone.

      1. Yorick*

        I have felt that way a little, but I think the worst is when people ask, “do you want to take out the trash?” Uh, no, I don’t want to.

        1. merp*

          Ha, I still have this problem with that type of language. Tangent, but this happened before a dental procedure that I was visibly, obviously anxious about. Do I want to get started? No! Not even slightly, but that’s what I’m here for so let’s just do it!

          If it’s not something anyone would reasonably actually want to do, ask me to do it in some other way.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            In all fairness to the person doing your procedure, they may have been sincerely asking. My dentist has a lot of clients with dental anxiety and he’ll ask if we’re ready because sometimes we’ll need a few minutes to do some breathing exercises or take a med to settle down. (I hated the other dentist I had who would ask that but immediately start working without waiting for a response. Rude.)

        2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          When I trained youth instructors, one of the first things we’d go over is never ask a kid a Yes/No, “Do you want to…?” Because inevitably, they’ll tell you no and then you’ll have to tell them they didn’t actually have a choice.

          1. CM*

            I generally follow this rule with my kids, but once I said “Do you want to help me clean the kitchen?” and my son replied, “No thank you, I prefer to enjoy childhood.” I had to give him that one.

            1. TiffanyAching*

              I got a lot of that growing up. “Do you want to do the dishes?” And my answer of “No, but I’ll do them anyway,” somehow wasn’t up to snuff. I always though, look, you’re the parent, you can tell me to do the dishes and I’ll do them — but don’t ask if I want to and then be upset when you get an honest answer!

              1. Mongrel*

                I’ve used “Is this really a multiple choice question?” for some of the more ambiguous situations at work.

          2. TardyTardis*

            I hear that. My husband asks me my opinion, and then he’ll tell me what he really wants (usually different) after that. He might as well just tell me what he wants instead of making me play guessing games, and making me realize that my opinion actually doesn’t count.

        3. So Not The Boss Of Me*

          My husband does this. It’s irritating, and I’m not the only one who has told him so. Our children and siblings have objected. “No. I hate that job, but it needs to be done and I will happily help you because that’s what we do.”
          He was a team lead at a factory with a bunch of tough guys. If he asked one of them if they “wanted” to do something, they would say “No” and refuse the work order! That did break him of the habit, but in retirement it came back. He’s incorrigible.

          1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

            Mine does it too, on the rare occasions that I forget and phrase a request that way. (Admittedly, I also am trying to break the habit of asking questions that aren’t actually what I mean, a la “Do you want to (blah)” when what I mean is “Can you please (blah)”, for Reasons. But anyway.) However, when I forget, and he gives me the shit-eating grin and goes “No, not really,” I return a patented Eyebrow and ask him “Is that your final answer?” and the blah gets done. :P

        4. Filosofickle*

          Oh, that used to get me into trouble. As a teen I was a summer lifeguard. One of my managers would always say that — “Do you want to take out the garbage?” Taking out the garbage involved lifting a full liner out of a 50 gallon drum, filled with gross park trash that’s been sitting in the desert sun all day. My response, every time, was “No, but I will.”

          My performance review noted I was uncooperative. I really bristled at that! My defense was I did everything she asked, without delay (but probably with a snarky remark). How is that an attitude problem? Decades later I understand where she was coming from and realize I was being a brat. My job isn’t only to fulfill my duties, it’s also to create a pleasant working environment.

          Still, I wish she’d have simply said “Your turn to take out the trash.”

          1. Maria Lopez*

            Wow, I don’t think you were being a brat at all. Your manager was the epitome of passive-aggressive, not even saying, “the trash needs to be taken out”, but actually asking if you wanted to do it. I would not like to work, let alone live, with someone like that.

        5. Captain Raymond Holt*

          Nobody ever spoke to me that way growing up! It was always commands (take out the trash). So when someone at my first job asked me to do something with the “do you want to” phrasing I took it at face value and was so confused.

        6. RUKiddingMe*


          My general framing tends to be something like, “I need you yo XYZ please.”

          It’s not a request but the please is a bit of social lubricant.

          As much as I wish we could all be just unfeeling automatons, as ling as we’re still himans we need to be nice-ish to each other.

        7. Rayray*

          OMG yes yes I hate this.

          I think it’s an effort on their part to phrase it politely but it’s so annoying.

        8. Admin of Sys*

          Yeah, In my opinion, ”do you want to” can come across as passive aggressive unless it’s offered in a list of options or as a first refusal. So if it’s a “we have 3 things to get done this week, do you want to do 1, 2, or 3?” is fine, and “someone on the team has to groom Gary the Llama and you said you love llama grooming, do you want to do that?” is also fine, but “do you want to start doing the TPS reports?” when the TPS reports need to be done and they expect the answer to be “yes” is just aggravating.

        9. Heffalump*

          I sometimes respond to this with a cheerful “I don’t want to, but I will.” Of course it helps to know your audience if you go this route.

        10. Librarian1*

          Oh, if someone asks if I want to do something, I assume they are genuinely asking and if I don’t want to do that thing, I will say no.

          If a manager is assigning work and phrases it as “could you do this” that’s fine because I understand it is a directive, not an actual question.

      2. rldk*

        I have found that I resent this approach when the manager/person assigning isn’t open to any amount of feedback, or overly pads a request in softening language even though they’re well aware that I had little to no capacity for more work. Ex: when I was one of 2 left of a 4 person team and had been given a major event to plan without any additional compensation or any responsibilities being relieved, hearing “Would you be so kind as to [x], if you wouldn’t mind” just felt tone-deaf and irritating.

        Granted, I was already BEC and job-hunting with that manager, but management is a context, not just an action!

      3. Micklak*

        I always frame these directions as “could you do the thing?” That’s what asking means to me. I had a boss who would say “please do the thing.” And despite the “please” it definitely came off as a command. It felt harsh.

        I’ve never had someone say no when I’ve asked “could you…”

        1. Maria Lopez*

          Where I see “please do the thing” to be refreshingly direct and polite, no harshness at all. Asking “could you” when there is really no ask is just passive to me.

          1. londonedit*

            Just ‘Please do the thing’ would come off as brusque to me. I’d wonder if my boss was irritated with me. Could be a British thing, as we do tend towards extra politeness! To me, ‘Could you please do the thing’ is still a command, but it’s a polite one. Similarly, ‘Would you mind doing the thing’ is also understood as not being optional, but it’s a polite way to phrase it.

      4. Mill Miker*

        “Can/could you do X” has never sounded optional to me. It’s a more objective question. It’s “Are you able to do X”, and I’d expect to able to say “no” or “not unless” to that, as long as I have an actual reason (Time, priorities, technical constraints). There’s an implicit order at the end of “If yes then do it, if not then explain why”

        When it’s “Would you mind doing X”, or “Would you like to do X”, that’s when it feels to me like an opinion question, and I should be able to say “no” for whatever reason I want to, including “I just really don’t want to”.

      5. TootsNYC*

        Another thing about the wording “can you”–it does leave room for you to say, “I have to go to the bathroom right now–I’ll do it when I get back.” Or “Joe gave me this thing to do–should I finish it first?”
        or “my back is hurting today–can I get Sylvia to help me?”

        That’s often why I ask, when I ask.

        1. Turtle Candle*

          I agree with this. “Can you get the report in by one?” isn’t really a request in that I can’t say “nahhh, I don’t feel like it.” But in functional workplaces, and even some dysfunctional ones, it is genuinely a question. I couldn’t reply “nope, not gonna!” but I could reply “Jane from Legal wants something in this afternoon; which is the higher priority?” or “Actually, I’m still waiting on information from Harry, so it’ll be dependent on that,” or “Oh, I have a doctor’s appointment between now and then so I’m not sure.” Yeah, if there’s not a good reason, it’s really a command, but the phrasing makes it feel more collaborative and open.

          1. The Gollux, Not a Mere Device*

            In this sort of context, “Can you paint the teapot?” could be expanded to “Gollux, either paint the teapot or tell me why you can’t.”

            I occasionally answer that (in a non-work context) with something like “I’m not sure, let me try” or “maybe, but I don’t think it’s a good idea, I might break it.”

            More often the answer is “sure, here it is,” “yes, but it’ll take a little while,” or a straightforward “no I can’t, because…”

      6. Mr. Obstinate*

        I’ve always felt this too, and while it’s a little hard to put my finger on (I don’t have a problem with “Could you do x?” whereas I am bothered by “You can do x” and “Do you want to do x?”) I think it’s about my wanting to preserve autonomy and a separate personal identity.
        There’s dignity in hearing an order and then choosing to follow that order because you consider the authority legitimate (even if you think the order itself is stupid). So I find an order most respectful when it’s direct and unambiguous.
        What I hate is when the order is phrased in such a way that, if I follow it, I am implying that I am doing so enthusiastically. That feels like the authority figure is passive-aggressively forcing me to endorse their idea, and making me choose between that and (what they would treat as) defiance.
        If I obey, then I am showing that yes, I want to do the same thing that the authority wants me to do, because after all, I was asked if I “wanted” to. But if I respond “Actually no, I don’t want to,” then the authority gets to reinterpret their own phrasing as a direct order and punish me for defying it.

    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      I think if you’re telling someone to do something, it just needs to be said in a non demanding way. Like saying “I need you to pull the TPS Report” instead of “Pull the TPS Report”. And for me saying “CAN you pull the TPS report” isn’t optional just because it’s in the form of a question. It’s the same in my personal life. If I walk into the kitchen, my husband might say “can you grab me a napkin”? I mean sure I could be a jerk and say no, but I don’t see it as optional.

  1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    There’s also a matter-of-fact way of stating things that avoids the tell-versus-act dichotomy:
    “Fergus, I have you scheduled to do the teapot maintenance this week.”
    “Wakeen, it’s your turn to handle llama grooming.”

    1. stefanielaine*

      I can see this working well for work on a pre-established fixed cycle, but probably less so for ad hoc assignments or projects.

    2. TootsNYC*

      or “I’d like you to take on this project.”
      or “I’m going to ask you to be the one who handles this.”

    3. Mpls*

      Isn’t that just telling? You’re using a passive voice to hide the telling, but it’s still telling.

      1. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

        Hmm. I see your point, but I don’t look at it as an active-voice vs passive-voice thing.

        I see it as “I’ve done my job as a manager of considering everything carefully, making the assignments, and writing it all down.” The point being that it comes across as not arbitrary or off-the-cuff, which I think is part of the reason people don’t like “telling” (because it’s just one step from “being jerked around”).

        1. Tom*

          It does not says that at all. It just means manager scheduled it, could have been completely thoughtless and could ignore important factors.

          To me it sounds like telling that it is set already.

  2. Mr. Tyzik*

    I work in agile environments where there is a culture of letting teams of people organize work. This is done for tech teams and business teams. In this case, the manager doesn’t assign tasks or projects, but gives an outcome to achieve and the team organizes around the outcome to plan how to achieve it.

    The idea is that ownership is best shared with those closest to the work. It reduces the directive nature of leadership and challenges the manager to manage people in different ways using outcome data for rating performance. Those teams who own and organize the work self-manage the tasks to meet leadership milestones. And since they have ownership, the teams have greater buy-in and engagement with the work,

    It takes a bit to achieve this dynamic – you can use a number of techniques and frameworks in practices, but this style really relies on interpersonal skills like communication and collaboration to make it work.

    1. So Not The Boss Of Me*

      At your company, what happens if you have a team member who does bad work or very little work? Who manages/ disciplines?

      1. Mr. Tyzik*

        Managers still have performance management responsibilities. The shift of the impact is to the team and how the behaviors in question affect the team. Based upon the frameworks, there are metrics to evaluate progress and improvement on a team and individual level.

        The team coaches each other on their work through open dialogue (that’s where the interpersonal skills come into play) and is honest as possible about retrospection and improvement opportunities. This root cause analysis doesn’t allow people to hide their subpar work for long.

  3. Brooke*

    My current supervisor frames requests as something *her* supervisor wants done. It’ll be like “Hey! Mary wants this done right away. Can you take care of this now?”

    1. hbc*

      Ew. I only use that if it’s something I clearly don’t have as a priority or otherwise want to distance myself from. For example, if I’m invested in flexible work times and Mary is insisting on a log of who comes in when, I’m letting Mary take that bullet. But if it happens more than once in a while, I’ve either got to get away from a boss with whom I disagree all the time, or reframe that *I* want it to happen, if only because I don’t want to lose my job.

      1. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

        My boss does the “X wants you to…” thing a lot and it makes me a bit confused about who actually is the boss… But I don’t mind asking or telling, all I need to know is the difference between “this is one possible way to do this thing but you can do it in other ways too if you feel like it” and “this is how this is done and you must do it exactly like this”.

    2. twig*

      As an admin, I’ll frame things as “Exec wants you to take care of Y” — as a way of borrowing authority.

      1. Micklak*

        I think this is a polite and effective way to get things done. It also helps people understand context.

      2. SierraSkiing*

        That especially makes sense with admin jobs, where you often have to get people who are technically “above” you to do things (like paperwork) that they aren’t very excited about.

      3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        I don’t know that admins have much of a choice in that and, truth be told, 99.99999% of the time you are asking someone to do it for the exec, not you, so it is accurate.

    3. NotAnotherManager!*

      I do this when it *is* a project from (my) Mary, but mostly because Mary’s request will likely need to be prioritized above other things, unless otherwise noted.

      But most requests come from me, and I don’t need Mary’s authority to ask someone to do something. I will sometimes note if something is for a VIP or high-profile, just so the person working on it is aware.

    4. Autumnheart*

      My mom used to do that. “Dad wants you to do [whatever].” Took me until HS to catch on that Dad usually didn’t have any clue what “he” supposedly wanted me for. Just another manipulation tactic on my mother’s part. The jig was up when I’d subsequently go to Dad and ask, “Hey, do you need me to do [whatever]?” and he’d be like “Nah.”

  4. PW*

    I think both should be used to communicate the importance of various tasks. If you have a boss that says both “can you get this by the end of the week” and “I need this by the end of the week” it’s clear which are the most critical. If they always “tell” it becomes less useful as a communication tool.

    1. TootsNYC*

      there’s a difference, to me, in “can you…” and “would you…” though it’s subtle.

      1. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

        I would personally treat both as they need to get done by the end of the week, but if my workload is heavy, I may push back on the “can you” request by explaining how much other work I have and what needs to be re-prioritized.

        1. obligatecandyvore*

          For me as a manager, that push-back is exactly what I would be looking for. If I ask my direct report “do you have time for X today,” not doing X isn’t on the table, I’m more specifically asking if we need to do any re-prioritizing. I’m looking for “yes,” or “would you want that before or after Y?” or “I’d need to push back Z to make that work.” Everyone is busy but the question is are you busy or BUSY this particular day?

  5. merp*

    This is an interesting question to me! I’ve never been a manager but as an employee, I’m not even sure I take note of whether my supervisors asks or tells – it all goes into the same assumption for me, which is that I need to do it. But like Alison says, my supervisor is always really polite and open to questions or concerns re: adding to my workload, so it’s all good. I’ve just never had cause to think too hard about the specific wording she uses.

  6. Seeking Second Childhood*

    As an employee not a manager, I’m fine with being told, with one exception. If you know the workload is crazy, or if the employee you are giving something new to do has just been given a 10 other things to be done, ask them how their priorities are looking. Ask them if it works with their current workload. If you don’t trust them to give you an honest answer, and work with you on a solution, that’s a totally different issue.

    1. Heidi*

      Seconding this. It’s fine to tell someone to do something, but employees should also feel safe pushing back if they don’t think that the task can be done (at least not without de-prioritizing something else the boss wants). You can also go the combo route – “Can you make this happen? Great, go do it, and I’ll plan to go over what you’ve done on Wednesday. Thanks.”

    2. Lora*

      Yup, this is what I do. “How are things going? Would you have time to also do (other task)? I need it by Friday.” That way if they are slammed, they can say “I can’t get it done by then, I have X, Y and Z to do already.”

      If everyone tells me they cannot do it, then I switch to “X needs done by Friday and I have had no volunteers, so Joe, you’re it.” And the assigned person rotates so it isn’t the same person getting extra work all the time and they all know it.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        Wait, if everyone is too overworked to do the additional work, you assign the additional work to someone at random instead of considering which projects/assignments could be reprioritized/deadlines shifted to get everything done in a more reasonable timeframe? That’s an interesting strategy.

  7. Amber Rose*

    I feel like it’s contextual. Telling tends to happen during conversations. Like sometimes I’ll be chatting with my boss about X and she’ll end with “OK, then run the reports and give them to Wakeen.” Asking usually comes at the start, like if I’m sitting at my desk and she’ll stop by and say, “I’ve sent you some orders, can you get those done today?”

    Not a rule or anything, just how the flow of conversation usually works. It would feel a touch rude for someone to stop by my desk and abruptly say “Run this report.”

    (Also I must confess I frequently respond to requests with “nope.” But only to people who know I’m joking. And I usually say it while I’m clearly starting to do whatever it is.)

    1. Antilles*

      Thinking about it, that’s how I do it too – if it’s a one-off or starting the conversation, then I’ll phrase it as an ask just so it doesn’t seem too sudden…but as part of the natural conversation, I typically phrase it as a tell.

    2. Just Another Manic Millie*

      “It would feel a touch rude for someone to stop by my desk and abruptly say “Run this report.””

      That’s what I used to think. But then there was a huge discussion at askamanager about when someone had to say “please” and when it wasn’t necessary to say “please.’ The general consensus was that one should say “please” when asking someone to do something that wasn’t their job, but when one wanted someone to do something that was their job, saying “please” wasn’t necessary.

      This rang a bell with me, because I remembered the time that I was working at a real estate company when a broker shoved a set-up in my face and shouted, “This is all wrong! Do it over!” At the time, I thought that he was being rude, because he didn’t say “please,” but since it was my job to do set-ups properly, maybe that’s why he didn’t say “please.” And all or most of you would have agreed, since all he wanted was for me to do my job.

      However, I said to him, “I didn’t type up that set-up. Minerva did. You’ll have to ask her to fix it.” He knew I was not saying, “It’s not MY job to fix Minerva’s mistakes.” He knew that I was saying, “Since Minerva typed that set-up, it’s in her computer. Our computers are not on a network, so I can’t access the documents she has created. So you’ll have ask her to fix it.”

      He then pantomimed that he was too chicken to approach Minerva. That angered me, because he certainly wasn’t too chicken to try to order me around, and I wasn’t even the one who screwed up. I debated whether or not I should ask Minerva to fix the set-up (I wasn’t sure if she would believe me that it needed fixing if no one else mentioned it to her), but luckily, someone else realized that it was all wrong and told her to fix it.

      I never cared if I was asked or if I was told to do something that was part of my job, because when I was asked, I knew my answer always had to be “yes.”

      1. CM*

        People still need to be polite, no matter what. Shouting “Do it over!” at someone is not polite. Saying, “Hey, this report is wrong, can you do it over and get it to me by 5?” would fall into the category of “it’s your job so please is not required.” Showing up and saying, “Run this report again,” is rude. “Hi Millie, I need you to run this report again,” is OK even though “please” is nicer.

      2. Ego Chamber*

        Nah, that guy was an asshole. (Let me count the ways.)

        1) Feedback wasn’t specific, 2) shouted at you, 3) got in your face, 4) about mistakes you hadn’t made, 5) since he was afraid (?!) to correct the person who’d done it incorrectly but 6) you were a more convenient target for his power play.

        “Please” would not have made any of this any less rude.

        1. Just Another Manic Millie*

          I didn’t say this before, but he really didn’t have to tell me what was wrong with the set-up because it took me only a couple of seconds to see what was wrong with it. But yes, he was afraid to tell Minerva to fix it, because she was the owner’s secretary. I said that he pantomimed being afraid to tell her, What he did was he opened his eyes very wide and raised his eyebrows, he put his fingertips on his mouth, and he shook his head “no” several times, all without saying a word. So I took that to mean that he didn’t have the guts to tell her. I was furious, because he had the guts to try to order me around, but he didn’t have the guts to talk to the person actually at fault. And I was really furious that he didn’t apologize.

          But I don’t recall from the previous discussion about when was it necessary to say “please” that when it wasn’t necessary (because you were just telling someone to do his/her job), you still shouldn’t make it sound like an angry order.

  8. Parenthetically*

    I’m starting to feel like asking them kind of makes me look weak.

    Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but a far more important question is whether or not you’re a confident, competent manager. I don’t think confident managers spend much time worrying about looking weak. It’s a misplaced focus and focusing on it will definitely backfire.

    1. Mirve*

      I wondered if they are actually “suggesting” rather than “asking” and so being somewhat ignored and that’s why they think it makes them look weak. Like having to ask more than once due to non-clarity in the first round.

    2. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I think the OP worries that asking makes her look incompetent or lacking confidence — in other words, weak. And if employees think that they can ignore either requests or orders with impunity, then that will create a problem.

      OP, if you manage correctly with follow-up, accountability and consequences if necessary, you won’t look weak for asking rather than telling. Managers that bark out orders like a drill sergeant but don’t follow up with accountability or consequences are weak. Be consistent and clear in your communication and do what is necessary to track progress and take action before big problems arise.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I think this is exactly right, and tone matters, too. If you’re pleasant and confident-sounding, a “can you do X?” is an assignment. If you’re hesitant or sounds like you’re really not sure that someone will take it seriously, it sounds more like an ask than an assignment.

        And, also, if someone treats a “Can you….?” assignment like it was a question, take a minute to figure out why – do they have too much on their plate, do they not know how to do the assignment, what’s going on with them? Most people who say “no” or push back have a legit reason for it (which you can often help them resolve) rather than just being petulant (though petulant or refusing work is a whole nother issue that needs to be dealt with as well).

      2. Not So NewReader*

        Adding managers that don’t carry their own weight look asinine no matter what if they bark orders or if they ask.
        This might be added confusion for new managers, but context does mean a lot. New bosses: Just because people hated the previous boss does NOT mean they will automatically hate you. If you have an angry crew then work every day at being fair and transparent (Huge topic) and know that time is on your side.

  9. WantonSeedStitch*

    I tend to default to asking–mostly, I think, because I appreciate it when my managers ask me to do things rather than simply telling me, for the most part. This is particularly true over e-mail, where a perfectly politely stated directive might sound rather cold and commanding, simply because there isn’t body language or tone to indicate courtesy and respect for the person, even if “please” is used. I haven’t had any problems with my reports treating requests as optional. If I say, “Can you get X to me by noon on Thursday?” they don’t say “no,” and don’t fail to deliver on time. If I had someone start doing that, coming back at me with, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was necessary, so I put it aside and did something else,” I would consider that a performance issue with the person, though I would still clarify, “when I ask you to complete something by a certain deadline, please consider that a directive. If you don’t feel you’ll be able to make that deadline, tell me right away and we can work out the best way to handle it.”

    One exception I make is if I’m trying to correct a problem with someone’s workplace behaviors. I would not, for example, ask, “can you please stop badmouthing the other team to our clients?” I would say “I need you to stop badmouthing the other team to our clients: it’s unprofessional and makes us look bad.”

  10. The Rain In Spain*

    I appreciate that my manager asks me if I have the capacity to take on xyz, as our team is small and understaffed. We all have a very heavy workload. I always say yes and give an anticipated turnaround time so that my manager can let me know if something needs to be expedited.

    1. Nancy*

      I was going to comment the same thing. When there’s a project to assign, and he has already looked over the workload assignments and determined I’m the candidate for assignment, he checks in with my capacity. It’s a polite and thoughtful checkin. Once he confirms my capacity to handle it, he follows up with a “As discussed, this has been assigned to you” email. It’s a good system, I think.

  11. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

    I had a clinic professor in law school (basically Baby’s First Law Firm) who phrased everything as vague suggestions unless there was an imminent deadline. Like, “Have you considered phrasing this report differently?” meant “You MUST use different language unless you have an EXCELLENT reason not to, but I won’t tell you what or how.” I get that it was supposed to teach us to be critical and not have our hands held, but it was MADDENING for the first month or two while we were figuring out her expectations.

    1. Chronic Overthinker*

      UGH, that’s rough. I mean I know you’re supposed to do research to fix phrasing but vagary is the WORST.

  12. Carlie*

    With a rough analogy to a parenting perspective, I have always asked my kids to do things I want them to do such as “Could you please clean your room before our big dinner tomorrow?” After years they finally told me that they kind of resent me doing it that way, because to them I’m artificially giving a veneer of politeness and choice to something that is actually a directive, just to make myself look kinder and more flexible than I really am. I can see that as a potential response in the workplace as well! So I’ve tried to adapt to asking as “Could you please do X by the end of the day” only if there is actually room for discussion and change on the details. If I honestly need X done by Y time, I’ll say “I need you to to do X by Y time.” That keeps things clear overall.

    1. So Not The Boss Of Me*

      My kids would definitely see that request as very, very optional. I had to start with “bedrooms need to be cleaned tomorrow, what time will you be ready to start?” And after the pushback it became “clean your room now” sometimes with an exclamation mark added.
      Not sure how much of that was cheeky, ADHD, very literal personalities. But could have been their parents’ high expectations for the English language? (We would dissect commercials to hear the hidden message driving the sale. I’m glad I taught them that, but may have helped create problems for myself, too.) They were fun. I miss them.

    2. CanCan*

      That’s what kids do – find any excuses for getting out of work. But I’m pretty sure that they know full well that “Can you please clean your room?” is not optional. Everything else is just escalation.
      1. Can you please clean your room?
      2. Go clean your room please.
      3. Go clean you room NOW!

      I would suggest starting with treating employees as in #1 – as people who understand that requests from the boss are requirements and not suggestions. If a certain person has a history of not understanding that (or pretending not to understand), skip #1 and go to #2.

      Good employees might find it approach #2 pretty jarring without good cause.

  13. animaniactoo*


    “We have X coming up, and I need you to handle that”
    “Jane, X will be your responsibility”
    “Can you work on X this week?” (note: this is for times where you’re looking at load-balancing whatever else is on their plate)
    “Do you want to take on X?” (This is for where it would be fine for them to decline it, as long as this person does not always get first pick of assignments)
    “Please put [this new assignment] at the top of your priority list” (you are theoretically asking, but this is a statement phrased as a request alongside the notation of the priority).
    “I need you to take care of X, it will be your top priority”

    And then tone is vitally important. Firm, confident, slow enough not to sound “abrupt”.

    1. The Engineer*

      “Please put [this new assignment] at the top of your priority list” (you are theoretically asking, but this is a statement phrased as a request alongside the notation of the priority).”
      Nope – Not asking. That is directive/command language. The verb is “Put”. Softened with the please but a directive. As it should be when it needs to be.

      All of your versions are great. Language used intentionally and clearly.

  14. Raine*

    Thinking back, I realize I used both at the same time – I would start by asking, then in the same breath frame it as a directive. “Could you get X and Y done tonight? They both need done because of Z.” Then I’d give them a moment to answer, and sometimes I’d get a reply that was “I don’t have time for that” and then we’d figure out a solution together. But I had a great team and we communicated well.

  15. TiaRachel*

    As someone who isn’t neurotypical, this is one of those things that infuriates me/can make a job environment impossible — I need to know whether it’s a job assignment (with maybe room for input or some deadline flexibility) or if it’d just be a nice thing to get done at some point if maybe I can fit it in. “I need the llama teapot inventory done, can you fit it in by tuesday?” is better than “would you be able to count the teapots?’ or, even worse, ‘Wow, those llamas are going through teapots fast. We should get a handle on that.’

    1. Close Bracket*

      Yup. I’m on the spectrum. Indirect communicators drive me batshit. I used to have a manager who would use the wording, “You should think about …” when he wanted me to do something. I inevitably responded, “Yeah, I thought about doing that, but it was a bad idea bc reasons so I’m not going to.” Took me a while to see the pattern.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            Thank you! Passive-aggressive management is abdication of the management role and should be treated the same as not bothering to come in to work. (Ffs.)

            1. Samwise*

              I don’t think it’s passive aggressive. It’s wording things politely. If you’re not catching when it’s a verbal social convention, then it’s safest to assume it’s a workplace social convention: that is, if your boss asks, it’s usually not up for debate.

              Of course, if you have reasons for not being able to comply, then share those with your boss: I’d need X and Y resources to get that done, can we arrange that? Or, Hmm, I’m working on the Z report for you which is due by DATE, so I won’t have time to get to New Thing You Just Asked Me To Do. How would you like me to prioritize? Or, Hmm, can I get back to you on that? I need to look at my other projects to see how it would fit in. And so on. (I’m a Hmm-er, it keeps me from automatically saying yes. Or no lol)

              1. Close Bracket*

                Inevitably, when my reason for not being able to comply is that his idea sucks, he would see my point and agree. How’s that for a workplace social convention.

        1. Close Bracket*

          You can want me to be less autistic, but you will have better results if instead you learn to communicate directly.

    2. Ariadne Oliver*

      I had a manager whose communication style was almost entirely that last one (‘Wow, those llamas are going through teapots fast. We should get a handle on that.’) It was quite frustrating but my colleagues and I eventually learned that we just needed to respond with something like ‘OK, Fergus will count the teapot consumption for this quarter, while Wakeen will pull historical teapot usage reports. We’ll compile the figures and schedule time to review.’

    3. Ego Chamber*

      or, even worse, ‘Wow, those llamas are going through teapots fast. We should get a handle on that.’

      Omfg I can’t. I’m not on the spectrum but I grew up half-raised by an incredibly passive-aggressive grandmother and as an adult I fully refuse to suffer that nonsense anymore. I’m fine with needing to ask a few clarifying questions, like if a manager says “Would you be able to count the teapots?” I would probably respond “What’s the deadline on that, I can check my schedule.” but “We should get a figure this out,” results in me saying “Well, you’re the manager, so you should probably assign someone.” (And then it’s always me whatever.)

      1. Samwise*

        See, now that strikes me as combative. It’s your boss, not your grandma, if you know your boss is roundabout and you know what he means, why not treat it as just the way the boss is? It doesn’t sound like he’s being roundabout at you. Anyway, assuming good intent (or even just, not bad intent) makes work life a lot easier.

        1. Kt*

          But what if you don’t know? You really think it’s just a passing musing?

          It took me seven years to realize that when the secretary of the math department I once worked at said, “you don’t put dirty Tupperware in your fridge at home, do you?”, she really was telling me to wash my Tupperware at lunch instead of at home. For seven years I thought she meant I should put my Tupperware in my desk after lunch, which I thought was nasty and weird. It never occurred to me in seven years that is use work time to do my dishes, as I was so painfully busy in that job that I spent 9-12 hours a weekday on. I literally woke up from sleep this year and realized she wanted me to wash my dishes at work, because I’m at a new workplace where people do that.

          Assume good intent too for those of us who don’t pick up on this stuff.

  16. btdt*

    It is so context dependent. I have employees who I ask to do something and they do it, others who assume it is optional unless it is a directive. In my experience an employee somewhat chooses how they are managed. Make it easy, you get a light hand, be hard to manage, you get much more direction, supervision. I don’t think either one makes you weak or strong. Just doing what is effective.

    1. Coyote Tango*

      I agree it’s both heavily context dependent and office culture dependent. In our office you’ll almost never hear anyone “tell” someone to do something it’s always an ask (even if you know you basically can’t say no because they’re your manager). If my boss wandered in one day and told me to run a report it would come across as very harsh and somewhat annoyed since the normal patter is “Hey can you get me XXX by this afternoon?”

  17. TurquoiseCow*

    I thought this was going to be about whom to assign work to – like, wait for volunteers or just assign. My experience with that is that it’s often the same person volunteering, even if they’re overloaded, while the others do not step up.

    I’m not really bothered one way or the other by the wording issues here, whether a boss asks or tells. The one thing that always bothered me was when a boss would say “We need to do X,” when I knew it was really going to be ME doing the work and not him. “I need you to do X” is much more realistic in this sense, but don’t frame it as a group project if it’s not.

  18. Jean*

    Tone matters more than wording IMO. If you need someone to do something, just say it in whatever words feel natural to you, but mind that you are using a neutral-to-friendly tone. You want to avoid sounding imperious or shaky/apologetic.

    1. Eccentric Smurf*

      I agree. My boss tells, but his tone is pretty neutral. “We need to finish Project A by the end of the month. Harry, do X by Friday so Ron can get started on Y next week. Hermione, you can start Z at any time but it has to be done by the 25th so I have time to finish the final report. Let me know if you run into any questions.”

      No fuss, no ambiguity, not harsh at all. If he barked it at us, I might feel differently, but the neutral tone makes the telling seem completely reasonable.

  19. no clever username*

    “People aren’t generally going to reply with ‘Nope.'”
    Oh, but I managed someone who did. Turns out she had a buuuuunch of other performance issues too. She still hasn’t been let go (whyyyy) but at least managing her is someone else’s problem now.

    1. CM*

      I still remember my first professional job when my manager described a difficult-sounding task and said, “Do you think you can do that?” And I said no. Because it sounded hard! She gently told me that her question was just a nice way of saying “Do it.” And that when asked a question like that at work, the answer was Yes. I appreciated that, it wasn’t at all obvious to me.

  20. IcedGrande*

    I’m happy to see this question here – I will almost never decline helping or leaning in with regards to a new task. However, I recently had a coworker in a different department come to me, saying that my boss wants me to take on a new task. This wouldn’t be a problem but I often have questions about the new responsibility, like how much extra time it adds into my workweek, how high a priority it is, etc. When I emailed my boss about this she straight up said “I don’t need your permission to assign you tasks” and, even though she’s technically right, that really wasn’t what I was asking of her and really felt out of touch. Props to the OP for asking so that she/he can be a better manager!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I have worked a lot of retail and asking about extra time on the work load or how high a priority something is would be a huge NO-NO. That would be read as insubordination.

      In thinking about this, it must be that your boss comes from a similar type background where those questions are just not asked.

      From personal experiences, I have always felt that bosses are very, very poor judges of how much extra time ANYTHING takes. I have never asked it because I just assumed I would get an useless answer.

  21. That would be a good band name*

    A lot of my job is a never-ending cycle of reports that have set weekly/monthly deadlines so generally the only time I’m asked/told to do something is if it’s beyond my normal job duties. Having said that, I find that usually it’s worded with who wants it and why and then “can you get it done by date/time”. If all of my work was assigned projects, I’d imagine that format would also work. State the thing that needs to happen and then ask about the time it will take.

  22. lost academic*

    I find I always need to strike a balance between avoiding severe ordering language and making my expectations clear. The direction for tasks that you’re handing out has to be clear in terms of what needs to be done, to what level, and when it needs to be in my (or someone else’s) hands. I’m in a business where you CAN say no but not always – you need to have a pretty compelling reason and you generally need to propose a solution, which is usually another person. It’s communicated well at all levels that it’s important to push back to avoid dropping the ball on everything you have, but also critical to prioritize and make time for important project and clients. (We’re all billable hours staff.)

  23. Lynn Marie*

    I think OP is thinking of asking as “Would you go do this” vs telling as “Go do this” and Alison is suggesting “Please go do this” which is phrased as a request but not really.

  24. AnotherSarah*

    When I’m the lead on a project (with my peers), I often use phrasing like “if you could do x, that would be great.” It’s a little indirect but I’m not their boss, and I think it works.

    As for weakness, I have seen some project leads look weak less as a result of how they assign tasks and more as a result of the way they thank people. There’s a difference, imo, between, “Can you do x by 5 today? …thanks” or “…thanks, I know it’s tight; I appreciate it” and “OMG thank you sooooo much this is such a huge help” when it’s not an emergency or something out of line with normal tasks. Like, we’re all here to work, it’s not a favor, and the latter phrasing sounds to me like it’s a favor for a lead who can’t really get things done on their own (which isn’t their job…)

    1. TootsNYC*

      “if you could do x, that would be great.”
      This is the one I don’t do. That implies it is completely optional. It doesn’t even say “let me know by X time (or ever) if you’re not going to be able to do it.

      There’s a legend that Robert E. Lee told Ewell to take a hill at Gettysburg by saying “Do this, if possible,” and that Ewell decided it was going to be too hard.

      So I avoid that sort of thing if I’m giving a task that needs to be done.
      Even if I’m not the one authorized to give people orders, I’m much more concrete than that. “This needs to be done. Would you do it?” and I wait for an answer.

      1. AnotherSarah*

        Interesting! I don’t think it implies optional, but if I saw results that indicated that it did, I’d definitely change my phrasing.

    2. Captain Raymond Holt*

      If someone says “if you could do x, that would be great” all I can see is Lumbergh from Office Space asking me to come in on Saturday.

      I’m a very literal person.

      1. So Not The Boss Of Me*

        Definitely where I went. Anything that sounds like “that’d be great” i would avoid at all times. Just sayin’.

  25. Jedi Squirrel*

    Some people will never hear the ask, so this is also a matter of knowing your team well.

    “Wakeen, can you get the TPS reports done by Friday” may not sound like an order to Wakeen, because he’s thinking “Of course, I can get them done by Friday.”

    “Wakeen, I need the TPS reports done by Friday” may not sound like an order to Wakeen, because he’s thinking “Oh, it’s a good thing I don’t have to do them, then, because I could never get them done by Friday.”

    Sometimes it’s a good thing when you are a new manager or you bring new people aboard to sit down with them and discuss communication styles to head off these issues.

    1. SierraSkiing*

      It’s also definitely a cultural thing. Take the case of a new manager who had just moved to town: she had a lot of people upset because she would tell them, “Sarah, do this thing. Caitlin, do the other thing by Friday.” Where she was from, that was perfectly normal and polite. However, in our area, those orders sounded really rude! Her boss coached her to say things like “Sarah, can you do the thing? Caitlin, I’d appreciate it if you could do the other thing by Friday.” The employees completely understood that those were still non-optional, but were no longer upset that they were being “ordered around”.

    2. Ama*

      Yes, my previous report and I had very similar communication and work styles so we were both in total agreement that “Can you get this to me by Friday?” meant “when the work day starts on Friday.” My current report thinks “by Friday” means “last thing I send on my way out the door.” So I’ve adjusted to say “Friday morning” or “end of day Thursday” if I really want it to work on on Friday so she has a more specific time frame.

      And then there are my colleagues who think “by Friday” means “you have to remind me on Friday and I won’t have started it so you’ll actually get it next Tuesday,” who I just ask for things a week before I actually need it.

      1. Jcarnall*

        That’s something I always ask for clarification on, if someone just says “I need this by …day.”

        Because some people mean “so long as it arrives on that day, it’s fine”.

        And some people mean “I need it by end of day PREVIOUS …day.”

        And some people mean “I’m giving a presentation on the subject of your report on …day, so I need it at least two days beforehand so I have time to prepare my powerpoint presentation”.

        You don’t know until you ask, so I ask.

  26. CC*

    Love the addendum about suggestions. Once had an editor write “word choice?” next to a circled word in a draft I sent her. I thought the word choice was fine, so I left it. Later she said, “Why is this word still there?” I said, “You said word choice, question mark. I decided the word choice made sense.” And she said, “I was just being nice!” I still think I was in the right there!

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      Ugh – yes, the suggestion thing just bit a friend of mine. He thought it was a suggestion and used his 20 years of professional judgement + established policy and procedure to go one direction, supervisor thought they’d told him to go a different direction. Writeup.

      Supervisor needs AAM.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Ironically, SHE could have chosen to use a few more words.

      “You need to choose another word here.”

  27. TootsNYC*

    There used to be a lot of conversation about how the ask/tell dynamic could be very gendered–that women managers would ask, and male subordinates would consider it a question that can be answered either way.

    I don’t think that’s all that common anymore, but I know I read articles that said women should get more comfortable with telling, and that men should understand that when your boss asks, “would you please take this to Marketing,” the answer must be yes.

    1. Meera*

      I agree with the gender thing. Women do have talk walk a tricky line to assume authority without being labeled bitchy.

      Cultural issues can also come into play re Ask vs Guess; about how direct vs indirect wording plays out. The cliche example are those lists translating British into American. While direct wording is clearer; indirect wording has its strengths for nuance and face, but it does require more parsing, experience and inference on the part of the listener.

  28. Booksnbooks*

    I’m in the clear minority here, but I love, love, love to be asked to do something rather than told. My boss always asks if I can do something, and I always say yes. I am fully aware I live in a happy bubble because of this, but it honestly goes a long way to making me feel ownership over everything I do.

    1. CM*

      I don’t think you’re in the minority! I think what everybody wants is clarity plus respect. If you and your boss both understand that “Could you please do this?” means that you are going to do it, and you both like that style, great.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      It’s my happy bubble also.

      “Thank you for realizing you are talking to a fellow adult.”
      Of course I am going to do what is asked. no boss ever died from being nice about asking.

  29. Delta Delta*

    I had a manager in an internship once who thought she’d “soften” requests of things she didn’t want to do by phrasing it as a question. Once when I was new I got a request like “do you want to call Mark at Teapots, Ltd. about the pink glazes?” So, I thought I’d call Mark and find out what was going on. Turns out Mark and my manager were in a death match over the pink glazes, and their last call ended in a screaming fight. Mark’s response to me was, “How clever. Lucinda’s getting her internsto make calls that are too controversial for her to make.” I felt hoodwinked. From then on when manager would say, “do you wanna….” as part of a direction to do something I felt like I could say no. I didn’t want to, and I had reason to believe the things she was asking me to do were unreasonable or were somehow inappropriate for me to do. At the end of the internship I raised the issue with her and she said she didn’t even realize she was doing it. She’s a nice person – I hope she figured out another way.

    1. CM*

      I don’t think that’s an “ask versus tell” issue. The problem is that your manager was making you, an intern, do inappropriate tasks. Doesn’t really matter how she told you.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        In this case it’s about context. Her softened requests were tied directly to things she did not want to do. It wasn’t because it was her general way of speaking. Her framing was a symptom of her poor management skills.

  30. Meißner Porcelain Teapot*

    Personally, I tend to look at it from the 2×2 chart of “urgent vs. non-urgent” and “important vs. not so important”.

    – Urgent and important: “Jane, please do X now/by [insert time frame here]. Thanks.”
    – Urgent, but not so important: “Jane, can you get X done by [itfh]?” If the answer is “yes”: “Great, please make it happen. Thanks.” If the answer is “no”, then it’s time to re-evaluate priorities and other options. Either way, someone’s gonna get to hear a “Please make it happen by [itfh]. Thanks.”
    – Not urgent, but important: “Jane, can you please handle X? Ideally, I’d need this by [itfh], latest by [itfh]. Thanks.”
    – Not urgent and not important: “Jane, could you handle X whenever you have the time? Thanks.” And then I follow up with Jane within a reasonable time frame to see if any progress was made.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I worked one place that was a very busy, fast paced environment. The word “now” was implied.
      “Would you please do X [now]?”

      Some people did not get it and the results were… uh… interesting.

      It turned out that the women did not say “now” to each other because it was redundant therefore rude. “Now” was implied.

      But if the men did not hear the word “now”, they assumed they had all the time in the world… in a *fast paced* environment.

  31. Leela*

    This may have been said already (haven’t read the comments yet) but I wonder how much gender plays a factor here. I know I tend to get much better results if I *ask* because when I *tell*, even politely, it’s treated like I’m slapping people in the face where I really don’t see that reaction from men at my level politely telling their team to do various tasks.

  32. Avocado Toast*

    Our office culture is such that we usually default to asking rather than telling. I love this because it automatically creates a conversation, even if the conversation is just “Can you call Jon?” “Sure”, which it mostly is.

    But as an employee, being given that opening in case I need it means that I can say “I can, but I’m going to see him this afternoon and I’d rather discuss this in person first if that’s okay” or “I’m completely swamped and I can’t get that done today”.

    Mostly I’m going to say yes. But the overall pattern of asking vs telling makes me feel valued as an employee…and on the occasion that I am told to do something rather than asked, I understand that it’s important and I can prioritize it.

  33. Jdc*

    I mean to me regardless of “would you” or “do this” you still have to do it so the wording shouldn’t matter. I think it’s nit picky and teenage behavior to worry over this. My 17 year old does this. It’s not cute for him let alone an adult in a professional environment.

    1. FedIT*

      I knew a fellow lieutenant that pulled something similar in the Army. It did not end well for him, and also resulted in all of us receiving instruction that when the battalion commander “asks” a junior officer to do something, its not a request.

  34. The Engineer*

    Words matter. Use the correct ones to convey what you really mean. If you need to be directive then do so. If you ask a question then expect an answer. If you don’t get one and don’t find out why, then you have dropped the ball as well as the other person. Be the manager and ‘assign’ duties as needed.

    I think that some people use the query/request language because they are uncomfortable with being in charge. You are responsible for your staff. Be clear on what is needed, what is optional, when it becomes non-optional, when it is needed, and who is else is tasked with supporting. Ultimately a failure by staff is a failure by the manager.

    You are there to direct and support your group. Know what your staff is assigned. Know what and by when you need a task done. Follow up to ensure communication occurred.

  35. Curmudgeon in California*

    What’s wrong with a polite directive? “Fergus, please run the teapot weekly production report by 4 pm today.”

    If the person’s time is crunched: “Fergus, can you please get the teapot weekly production report out by 4 pm?” This says that the person can come back with “Maybe. I’m deep in the weeds troubleshooting a teapot glazing problem, but I’ll run it when I get a chance.”

    None of it is rude, none of it is “weak”, none of it is ambiguous.

  36. GreenDoor*

    I mostly used asking wording because I”m trusting my staff to be professionals meaning, I trust them to prioritize it within the totality of their workload, to further delegate it if they have they have the authority to do so (I’m upper level management), and to push back if they really can’t do it or have concerns about it. In this sense, I don’t view asking wording as weak, but rather, a part of being respectful of my colleagues as professionals and a part of how you establish a positive climate in the workplace.

    I will use directing wording when I must have it done by a specific person, in a specific way, or by a specific time. But, like Alison said, I also spell out why. And I still say thank you after, even if if was a directive. Again, to foster a positive work climate.

  37. YA Author*

    When I first had a team assistant, I struggled to assign tasks and deadlines. It was hard for me not to say “when you get around to it,” which would have worked on *me* but not on everyone. As I quickly learned.

    Me: could you please get those packages out to the contributors this week?

    Team assistant: no. I don’t have time.

    She was literally sitting in her cubicle with her feet on the desktop reading a non-work book. Our shared boss was both uninvolved and offsite (based in a different state) and nothing in my life had prepared me to manage someone like this, especially without the power to hire/fire/discipline.

  38. Juniantara*

    One of the ways to manage to manage this dynamic too is if there as been discussion on a topic, finish any conversation with “Okay, to sum up, I’ll write the report on our current llama strategy and you will have the details on the llama feed by Tuesday.”

    I end almost all formal meetings with a review of decisions/action items, but it can make sense to do so in more casual conversations as well, especially with people you are managing (part of setting clear expectations)

    If I’m just handing a task to someone else I tend toward “Could you please” or “I need you to”, both of which don’t sound optional to me at all and I would treat as required.
    If I’m asking a favor, I tend to go with “would it be possible.”
    Anything much less definite than that and I’m soliciting feedback about a potential activity, not actually assigning something.

  39. FloralsForever*

    CONTEXT is important for me. also the way people phrase requests makes me feel valued.

    i don’t mind my boss saying “please make sure you get x,y,z done before EOD.” sure of course – this is polite and feels respectful. if he’s springing something on me and it catches me off guard, it makes me feel like i can push back just a little if i need and we can come to a good compromise.

    if a peer colleague who gives me the exact same request, it is tone deaf and makes me bristle. even things that fall under my jurisdiction, a question is always better than a command phrase. like “Florals, can you analyze this teapot budget and provide x,y,z? let me know if i missed anything. we will be starting the work next Monday.” is so much better than “please provide x,y,z by Friday”. because my work requires attention to detail and sometimes requires a conversation, the question feels more cooperative – like we’re all in this together. (yes, i know i’m a sensitive one, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. that sensitivity also makes me very good at work.)

    also, i will say that my company is bi-coastal and there is a definite cultural difference between left and right coasts.

  40. Allypopx*

    I think this is a hard conversation to have in an online forum because so much is tone.

    “I need the teapot reports” can be a barking order or very casual. “I need that report when you have a minute” can be polite or meek. “Can you run this report for me?” can be a request or a polite command. Tone is so much of this.

  41. Chronic Overthinker*

    Being the “gofer” for my office I tend to be the one doing all the “little stuff” around the office. Tell me to do something, rather than asking. Just add a please or a thank you. “Could you please make another cup of coffee?” “Would you please take out the trash on your way out?” (just examples)

    Or something like “would you please take care of x,y,z by end of business today?” Or “I need the chocolate teapots production report by 4:00 p.m. please.” It all depends on context or strength of need. I prefer polite directives as I could be working on multiple projects at any given time or be completely free to take on any task, depending on the time of day.

    TL:DR; Be direct, but polite.

  42. Policy Wonk*

    Early in my career I was told this was gendered language. Women ask, men direct. If you are the boss, give assignments, don’t ask your employees to do their jobs. Don’t know if this is still true, but it was then. Not 100% of the time, but surprisingly often. Once this was pointed out, it was obvious. Years later I still find myself re-drafting e-mails to make sure I am telling people what I need rather than asking them. But I do it. You can be very polite while still giving direction – many commenters have given language suggestions. And others have noted that some people need more direct instruction. (While this is often a concern of those who are outside of the neural mainstream, it is often an issue for newbies as well.) The only time I ask is if my employee truly has the ability to decline – or to negotiate e.g., I can do this, but it means I won’t be able to get to that.

  43. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

    I think a warm, bright, but direct, “Please do xyz”is the best way to be clear. You can still encourage a friendly, collegial environment in other ways. But I don’t like to do leave too much up for interpretation if I need someone to do a specific project or task.

  44. Sail On, Sailor*

    I am a female manager in a male-dominated industry, who also happens to look younger than my years. I learned early on that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I needed to speak like the men. (Or at least the way they speak in this industry.) So I always say, “Please do [blank]” or “I need you to [blank.]” I’m polite but direct.

    Now if I’m talking to my boss about something, I change gears. Then I switch to, “Can you please send me [blank]?

    1. Curmudgeon in California*

      This. I’ve spent most of my working life in male dominated fields. Now people get bent out of shape at me when I don’t communicate “like a woman should”** I’ve developed a very antipathetic attitude about that.

      ** I.E. According to stereotype

    2. Adultiest Adult*

      I went to a management training last year through the company which really emphasized the “I need you to…” language, and it was interesting how difficult my (mostly female) colleagues found it. I’ve always talked that way. If I’m making a request, it will probably contain a “please” but it’s a directive, no question, and I would never ask someone “could” you do something unless I had a genuine question about capacity. Occasionally I have difficulty with someone who prefers overly softening language, but I’d honestly rather have that than someone who treats my requests as optional. My reports acknowledge that I am always clear, and I don’t have to chase people around the way some other managers do!

  45. pcake*

    I always sort-of ask/tell. No one ever mistook that I meant “do it”, but it felt softer. In a pleasant tone of voice, I’d say something like “Jane, would you please total up the teapot order list?” or “Donegal, could you please have the hardware organized by Friday?”

    I always got good responses this way.

  46. Jcarnall*

    Years ago, a co-worker informed me that she didn’t read my emails because she didn’t like my wording.

    I’d developed the habit of asking my co-workers to do things politely – we were technically peers, but there were things I had to get done for the whole organisation that were dependent on their doing things I’d asked them to do.

    So instead of “Send me over full details of Teapot Conference by 4pm Thursday” I’d write “Hi X, I know you’ve got all the details of the Teapot Conference we’re doing, I need to get it into the email newsletter and I’ll be doing that Friday so can you make sure I have everything I need to know by 4pm Thursday, thanks!”

    I asked her what the problem was with my wording, and she opened up one of my emails, turned her laptop round to me, and said “Just read it out!”

    So I read it out loud, in the tone of voice I would have used had I walked over to her desk with this request, and she looked at me puzzled “It sounds different when you read it out that when I hear it in my mind…”

    Apparently she’d been “hearing” some irritating voice when she read my emails, and when she heard me read what I’d written the way I would have said it, she didn’t feel nearly so irritated by this polite request.

    I wish I could tell you she got better about responding to my emails, but she really didn’t. She couldn’t actually help with how I should re-word my emails to her so she’d find them less annoying, either.

  47. Ealasaid*

    I’m a fan of asking when it’s an actual question. If “no” is not an acceptable answer, don’t ask. You can tell and be polite, for sure! But don’t say “can you do this by Friday?” if you genuinely don’t mind if it takes longer.

    You can mix them, too – “Wakeen, I need you to document this feature in the new product. Could you get it done by next Wednesday?” Doing the documentation isn’t optional, but how long it takes is flexible.

    I’m cranky about this because my family likes to phrase orders as questions to be “polite” but then won’t take “no” for an answer. “Do you want to help me cook dinner?” = “Come help me cook dinner.”

    If it’s not genuinely a question, don’t phrase it as one.

  48. LizM*

    Thanks for posting this. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about since becoming a manager. I’m a woman and quite a bit younger than several members of my team, and noticed that I tend to phrase things as asking for favors. I’ve had to make an effort to be more direct.

    Generally when I phrase it as a question, I’m actually asking “Are you able to do this?” I expect the person to say yes unless there is some reason (time, tools, etc.) that will prevent it.

  49. CanCan*

    “Can you please….” is a tell that sounds like an ask, and is fine most of the time.
    An ask is more appropriate when you’re asking for a specific deadline: “Would you be able to finish this by tomorrow?”
    An ask can also work when task is new for this person, and you’re giving them a chance to consider the task and ask for more directions. A “no” answer isn’t really open to them, but they could either answer with a short yes, or “yes but can you please give me more info / help.”

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