Dealing with requests outside of your expertise

Many years ago, one of my (now) friends had just started working at the same company as me. Unfortunately I didn’t make the best first impression.

His boss had asked him to “speak to Sally about that” regarding a particular matter now lost in time, so not knowing any different he had emailed me very nicely about whatever it was, to which I sent back a short and strong email saying something along the lines of “THIS IS NOT WITHIN MY REMIT”. Knowing me it was probably sweary.

I don’t make a habit of sending those kind of emails to people I barely know, and was clearly just having a bad day (coupled with repeatedly being asked about that particular thing), but the fact was one poor communication on an off day left a poor impression of me that lasted a while. I think he’s still secretly a bit scared of me.

How to respond better than me!

How you respond to requests which are outside of your remit and expertise is really important in a few ways. Take the following situation for example:

You’re in a non-technical role where you’re responsible for putting together requirements. The third party development team have little to no experience implementing what you have recommended from a strategic perspective.

You receive an email from them asking questions around the specifics of how best to implement some scripts to meet the requirements. This is not uncommon – you’re frequently mistaken for the person to ask anything and everything about your department, no matter how technical. It’s a source of great frustration – you’re trying to learn some basic programming, but the questions are way beyond you. At the same time you’re also clear on your role – technical knowledge was never part of it, you know you’re not meant to be coming up with these answers, and yet you feel like you’re failing. You keep batting back these emails to your manager, saying you don’t know the answers as you don’t have any JavaScript experience, but you feel she’s just becoming frustrated with your lack of ability. You start to question yourself. Should you be responsible for telling the developers how to implement some code, or does that lie with them?

Of course the developer asking you questions is right to ask. They want to get their job right, and it’s not their fault that they’ve asked the wrong person. However, if you constantly say you don’t know how to do something, even if it’s not part of your job role, you run the risk of coming across as poorly skilled or inept. If you constantly say no to requests without explaining why, you may be portrayed as too negative, or too inflexible.

When asked to do something that you don’t know how to do, or don’t feel like you should be doing, try not to instantly jump in with a response saying something negative. If your manager is fed up with you saying “I don’t know”, then don’t say it. In our hypothetical situation, our immediate reflex may to be reply and say:

“I cannot comment whether the code looks fine or not as I do not understand JavaScript. This is not part of my job.”

This instantly highlights a negative that didn’t need to be there, drawing attention to a lack of your skills that never needed to be included.

Instead, perhaps tell your manager about the email, but instead of making it about your skill gap instead say “The external development team aren’t sure that they’re implementing my recommendations properly. We should get [experienced developer] assigned to the project to help them so that we can make sure that we can share our knowledge from [previous learnings]”. Alternatively, introduce the relevant person into the conversation and state “Whilst I’m the person responsible for our requirements, this is the person to speak to about all implementation queries”. It’s then not that you have failings, it’s that other people are better placed to deal with a query.

It’s important not to let any misunderstandings in role or expertise highlight what you can’t do rather than what you can do. If you push back all the time, are too negative, or say that you can’t do something, you might inadvertently highlight areas which your skills are weak. Instead, identify what the issue is, and provide a solution – that way you can reinforce what you do without being negative about what you don’t.