In the complex and challenging business world of 2016 and beyond, where everyone is being asked to do more with less, teaching and coaching employees to say “no” may be the most critical skill you develop in your teams and functions.
I was leading a foundational Business Leadership program for front-line managers today and we were discussing the real challenges of being a business in this 24/7 volatile and changing business world. One of our guest speakers was an executive I truly respect because he is authentic and understands how to manage the expectations of all different types of stakeholders, including sharing his perspectives on saying no.
We discussed how setting limits is one of the most important skills to learn and utilize in order to achieve success and personal growth. One of the most important aspects of setting limits is the ability to say no to the work, projects, people, and business activities we simply cannot accomplish because we don’t have the resources to do the right job so that it supports the alignment and execution of our business strategy. One of the most profound statements of the day was the following:
“When you say no to the things that you can’t do right and don’t support the priorities of the overall business strategy, you are in effect saying ‘yes’ to the most critical things and priorities that will help you achieve success.”
As a business leader who personally struggles with saying no, I understand how difficult it can be. We want to say yes to everything and push ourselves and our business to growth and success. We want to be liked and we want to make everyone – including customers – happy. We want to be team players and we want to be collaborators. We avoid conflict, we avoid hurting feelings, and most of all, we avoid closing the door on an opportunity. At the end of the day – and with deep soul-searching - we say yes to everything because we think we can do it all.
No matter the reason, the fact of the matter is that saying yes to too many things can kill a business or a career. By saying yes to everything, we diminish the value of other things that can be way more important to our business and the execution of our strategy. The most disturbing thing about saying yes too often is that if we have too much going on, then we have no room for agility if something truly unique and disruptive comes along. We then end up either missing it or not doing justice to it. If there are no limits, we will end up in the worst place in business and that is called “stuck in the middle” where we have no unique value proposition to customers.
Based on research, discussions with successful business leaders, and our own experiences, here are 5 tips on coaching employees say no.
Set a limit on priorities – How many priorities do you have and how many are too much? Most successful people will tell you that after the fifth priority everything becomes a hassle and you end up like the proverbial hamster spinning, spinning, and spinning on the treadmill without really accomplishing much.
Limit the length of meetings – This is one I have started seeing people do much more of. We typically set meetings to be an hour, but what if we condensed them and focused the meeting on the 80% that is most important? Can we accomplish that in 30 minutes? We can with tight agendas and managed expectations and tasks.
Estimate the time it takes to complete your tasks and multiply by 1.35 – I have yet to meet the successful business person who accurately forecasts how long it really takes to complete your daily task list. If you have trouble doing that, calculate the time you think it will take and then multiply it by 1.35 to get to the actual number. Then you can take a look at what is realistic and say no to things.
Learn to say “no” with compassion – Saying no is very difficult as mentioned earlier. So learn how to say no with compassion! “I’m sorry Dan, I would love to help you with that project because I know how hard it will be to complete, but I am working on another similar project that is behind schedule and if I don’t finish it, we will lose the revenue which will really hurt us all.”
Set worktime at work (and not during evenings at home) – This is a new idea as a result of the new workplace. The new workplace has become the place for collaboration and teamwork which is great and critical to success. Unfortunately, it has also become the place where the “actual work” is not getting completed anymore. That place seemingly has become at home in the evenings after the kids have gone to sleep and you have a “few hours to yourself.”