One of the weightiest leadership challenges facing all leaders today is trying to do more with less in a world that both sets higher expectations and is changing dramatically. Unfortunately, too many leaders think it’s a heroic duty to say yes to everything and then set an organizational challenge to all employees to get everything done at all costs. The hero leader thinks that by overpromising and fighting the gallant fight against all the odds builds stature, power, and career. While it may be an effective approach in the short-term, it simply won’t work in the long term and will ultimately detract from key long term metrics such as increasing total shareholder return (TSR).
It is imperative that organizations and leaders build the skills to say no effectively so they can execute the strategy of the business and meet their long-term goals and objectives. Of course, it must go without saying that learning the skills to say no is not a manipulation to get out of work or become less accountable; it’s about doing the best quality work, being accountable, and achieving long-term goals and objectives in the most effective ways possible.
Based on research of academic readings and my own experiences conducting leadership training development workshops, I present 5 tips to help develop the skill of saying no. All of these tips are based on a context that you already have enough to do and the additional work is additional to what you already have on your plate.
If you are asked to do something new, big, and important, what are you going to take away?
This is a classic first-step. Assuming you are already filled to capacity and a request to do something additional comes to you, you can certainly add it to your to-do list, when you take something else off. Strategically, this makes sense and hopefully, the thing you are adding should be much more important than the thing you are taking off.
Use Logic Not Excuses or Emotion
Saying no with emotion and a bunch of half-hearted excuses to a someone asking you to do something can only create more emotion. It’s usually and instant trigger for accelerated negative behaviors for all involved. So be smart; use logic when saying no. “I’m sorry, we are already at capacity and quality is going to suffer if we add more. If this is more important, let’s do it and let’s decide what else we are going to not do…”
Don’t Ever Instantly Say Yes
The hero leader is built to say yes; especially when there is a crisis. “Thanks for asking me about this. I’d love to help, but let me see what our capacity looks like and I will get back to you shortly” could be the most important leadership statement you ever make. There is nothing wrong with assessing the situation, figuring things out, and then getting back to the person making the request. Developing and practicing this skill is important because it will also stop repeat offenders from asking you to do things without consideration.
Try Not to Commit to Someone Asking for Someone Else
One of the most difficult leadership challenges is when you are asked to do something second hand. “Hey, how are you? Listen, I was just in a meeting with Jill and she asked me to get in touch with you about getting involved with the XYZ project. You should get started on that ASAP.” In this scenario, Jill, even if she is your boss or your boss’s boss, needs to at some point provide you with the information so that you can do your best work and manage your workflow.
Eliminate Guilt as an Emotion at Work
At the end of the day, you are accountable for your work, results, and yourself. The people you work with may be well-intentioned but they don’t live in your shoes. If you say no to someone at work, they will usually make you feel guilty and perhaps even shame you into saying yes. It’s really important to try to eliminate the emotion of guilt and again focus on the logic of the situation and what’s best for the business.
In summary, saying no is very hard; but that’s what leaders do. Especially when you know it’s not going to work, you know you don’t have the capabilities, or if you simply don’t have the time to do a quality job. If what you are being asked to do is a good idea and good for the company, then use a simple technique of removing something else and finding the right balance.