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The Art of Asking for What You Want at Work

Work relationships are hard. Many times, we avoid speaking out of place or demanding what we want, in fear of the repercussions. However, some experts say that may actually be the approach that we all should be taking.

“As important and valuable as it is to build our internal and external networks, create goodwill with colleagues and managers, and be seen as credible, reliable, and a team-player, we need to start making requests in our careers earlier than we think,” Deborah Grayson Riegel, a professional speaker and facilitator who teaches leadership communication at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, says. “That means you might want to ask for a professional development budget while negotiating a new position, or ask someone to be your mentor whom you’ve only met a few times.”

In her recent piece for the Harvard Business Review, Riegel explains why asking for what you need at work early on may actually be a more effective way of getting what we need without seeming needy, and how we can all apply this practice in our own working lives.


One helpful tactic for asking for what you need is to think about the 5:1 magic ratio.

“This means that for every negative feeling or interaction between people in a relationship, there must be five positive feelings or interactions,” Reigel says. “Rather than spending time ruminating over whether you should ask someone to do something for you when you don’t know them well enough, use that time to increase your positive interactions with them.”

Riegel provides the following example of simple actions you could take to build the 5:1 ratio:

1. Send them an article you think they might be interested in.

2. On a Friday, ask them what they have planned for the weekend (and share your plans, too).

3. Set their name and/or company name in a Google Alert, and let them know when they’re in the news.

4. Invite them to an event you’re hosting or attending (live or virtual).

5. Thank them for something they’ve done that you appreciated, and share the impact it had. Then, make your ask! It will come in the context of positive interactions, and feel less like a withdrawal in your relationship bank account.


When a demand is made, the receiving party typically feels obligated to say yes. Rather than making demands at work, Reigel recommends trying to rephrase what you want into a request.

“It allows for dialogue, flexibility, and compromise,” she says. “It also shows consideration for the other person’s needs, values, and interests, and gives them an out. This might sound like saying to your boss, ‘I would like to be able to take a four-day weekend next month. I have the vacation time, but I want to make sure that it works with the rest of the team’s schedule. What do you think?’ Or it could sound like asking someone in your network, ‘I know that you have a knack for making connections, and I would love to be introduced to someone in your LinkedIn network. Is that something you’d be comfortable doing? And if not, I understand.’ Be direct, be willing to ask more than once — and be able to move on if the answer is no.”


Requests won’t always be met. And if you do happen to get a “no” from your manger, Reigel suggests exploring what that “no” really means.

“If you’re in a new professional relationship, you may take a ‘no’ to your requests personally,” she says. “You could imagine that it means your boss thinks you’re undeserving of an overseas client meeting, or that your colleague doesn’t think you could actually get the job for which you’ve asked them to review your cover letter. But those are all a story you’re making up unless you’re willing to ask what “no” means. Get curious about why your boss decided to send your coworker on the trip, or what types of materials your colleague is willing to review for you. And then make a better ask next time.”

Sources: Harvard Business Review, Purdue University

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