Today’s leaders didn’t get to where they are by saying no to opportunities. Most arrived at their positions by saying a lot of yesses. Yes to a rush-marketing assignment. Yes to a CEO’s special request. Yes to implementing a new technology across a global network. These are widely praised as good leadership traits, but how often is a leader congratulated for saying no?
These many yesses require leaders to inspire those they lead with a common purpose and successfully transform organizational visions into profitable realities. But with the many yesses along the way also comes endless meetings due to tangents, impromptu brainstorming, more people on meetings than what is really needed, and long hours at the office to manage the overflow. Company cultures driven by yesses, where there is no moderation in who attends meetings, who’s allowed to jump in on a conference call, and what new ideas should be tried out are also the ones with the longest work hours, the most relationship issues, and the most dissatisfied employees.
Why is it so easy to get stuck in stressful and time-consuming work habits yet so difficult to say no?
At the core lies a basic human instinct: to be liked, to be accepted, to be loved. Saying no taps into the fear that people will feel disappointed with you and you will drop in their esteem. Or they will feel hurt with your rejection and resent you. It seems so much easier to say yes: I can take that on (if I say no you will think I am not capable); I have time to listen to your idea (if I say no you will think I don’t care).
In my experience, there are two common scenarios of easy yesses. The first is saying yes when somebody asks you to take on more work or a new project. Many professionals derive their self-esteem from “making it happen” or “knowing it all” –or at least looking like they can. Saying no becomes an equivalent in their heads to admitting that they are not capable which affects their sense of self-worth. They might also fear a ‘no’ shows lack of commitment and might curtail their possibilities to advance professionally. Who will be considered for promotion, the one that can make it all happen or the one that says he has too much on his plate? Yet, I believe a grounded no (or counteroffer) shows more trustworthiness than an easy yes. It implies that you have stopped to consider if you have the skills and resources to accomplish what is requested instead of playing it by ear. It implies you have checked that those whom you depend on will deliver for you instead of overworking them with impossible deadlines. It implies you have looked at the larger picture and reprioritized considering what is at stake instead of saying yes to a new task that may hinder overall performance. Saying no or counter offering shows conscientiousness, strategic thinking and courage.
The second is saying yes to initiatives from your team members to be a part of a project or explore new ideas that might or might not be aligned to your vision and strategy.
A team member requests to sit on a meeting. You think he believes he’ll get an opportunity to share his ideas and gain exposure to A-level management. You know these meetings are not about hearing new ideas and he won’t gain much from participating. Still, if you say no it seems you are not supportive. If you say yes, he will feel happy at the opportunity you are giving him. It seems easier to say yes.
Another team member asks for a meeting to explore a new idea. If you say no, it seems you are curtailing innovation. It’s just an hour of your time. You know there are no resources right now to sway off current strategy but there’s no harm in listening. It seems easier to say yes.
There’s not a high cost in saying yes to one meeting. It’s the adding up of many quick unconscious yesses that gets you into trouble. After experiencing a few of the meetings, team member A’s initial enthusiasm turns into frustration at precious time spent. Team member B recognizes that underneath the listening attitude there’s no real commitment to explore; enthusiasm turns into apathy.
How to balance giving people leeway to participate and explore while keeping the team focused on a common direction?
Start by exploring the underlying interest. Instead of an easy yes or a sharp no, find out why this is important to them: “What is the benefit you expect to receive and/or contribute by participating in the meeting?” This gives your team member a chance for honest reflection on why participating is relevant to him. Answering this question might reveal anything from a miscommunication about the topic of the meeting or that, yes, it is a crucial meeting for him to sit in on. But, if the answer is no, an honest reply expressing your truth is best: “I’m concerned there are already too many people attending this meeting and I don’t feel an extra person would bring added value. It can actually be disruptive for the dynamic based on past experiences.” And then you can explore other ways to meet his goal. If he wanted to share his ideas with other senior managers you can help set up a one-on-one meeting with one of them. It might not be the answer they wanted to hear, but it’s the right answer because you used perspective and judgment as their leader to make a decision that’s better for the overall system.
Another strategy that can help is to define standards. If you want to create space for innovation but don’t want to lose focus on the current strategy, define a percentage of time it’s ok for people to explore off-track. Make this standard explicit and hold people accountable to it. This way, they are empowered to choose within a boundary that makes sense with the overall strategy.
The feeling you will disappoint somebody when you say no might still persist. Some people do take it personally and your ‘no’ can sting a bit. But remember, easy yesses lead to wasted time, eroded trust (why did you say yes when you thought it was a bad idea?) and poor performance as people get sidetracked. If you are focused on the overall strategy and you are operating from a place of care, conscious no’s makes teams feel more empowered, focused and valued.
About the author
Francisco is Axialent CEO. As a member of Axialent’s founding team, he combines the experience of opening new markets, partnering with global clients in their transformation journeys, and creating business operating platforms from scratch. Read more>