It’s Okay to Say No at Work

Imagine you have a new marketer at your company.

Up and running for a few weeks now, Sarah has impressed her peers and senior employees with her insight and work ethic. This morning, she’s got several requests in her inbox:

  • from her boss, to start digging in on a new research project;
  • from the sales team, for a piece of copy;
  • from the communications manager, for ideas for an upcoming email campaign—“if you have time,” the email says.

On top of that, she’s still got new-hire materials to read, the day-to-day minutiae of her role, and some ideas of her own she hopes to flesh out and present to her boss soon.

What does Sarah do?

The “Yes” Compulsion

As an A-player, Sarah is probably going to say yes to all these tasks, even though she doesn’t have the time and energy to give each one its due. Saying no to any of them would mean disappointing someone and tarnishing her image as someone who makes things happen, wouldn’t it?

A lot of us, like Sarah, get a rush from saying yes at work. We want to seem helpful, willing to create value wherever we can and for whomever we can—and we want to be top of mind when the next promotion comes around.  But if your A-players (or B-players) get in the habit of spreading themselves thin with yeses, their effectiveness is going to plummet.

As leader, you’re an expert in saying yes to the right things and no to everything else (because you typically have an unlimited number of issues to attend to). It’s vital that you take the next step and train your employees to have that same focus, and to feel comfortable declining new work that would tip the scale into unmanageability, or that doesn’t support the core of what they need to achieve this quarter.


Why Too Many Yeses Cripple Performance

When employees are biased toward saying yes to anything, they’re in danger of drowning in a sea of scattered busywork. This overloaded plate of work is a recipe for sluggish company performance, and kills off employee effectiveness.

First of all, the overloaded person gets frustrated, feeling like they’re at the mercy of who-knows-what request may come in next. Second, they soon find themselves unable to accurately predict whether they’ll meet certain targets. Their scattershot efforts will leave them exhausted and their stakeholders disappointed.

When a sizable proportion of your team has taken on too much, the problem deepens. A department can’t predict the performance of an overloaded team, and if departments aren’t performing predictably, the CEO is working blind, unable to know with any level of certainty whether the company’s goals will be met.

How do you solve the problem? On one hand, you don’t want to overprescribe employee duties, strictly forbidding their involvement in matters outside their domain. On the other, you can’t have them flitting between dozens of half-baked projects, devoting equal time to low- and high-priority tasks. You want them to not just get things done, but to get the right things done.


The Solution: Build a Culture of Focus from the Top

Much good advice exists for helping individual employees say no at work. What many of these pieces overlook, however, is that focus starts at the top.

In my book, The CEO Tightrope, I lay out the five responsibilities of the CEO, one of which is “owning the vision.” Owning the vision means communicating the mission and strategy of the company to every employee. Once an employee truly understands the mission and strategy, he or she has a powerful sorting tool for incoming requests.

Each request now goes through the sorter—Does this align with the mission and strategy of my department and company?—and gets pushed into the “yes” or “no” category based on the answer.

You and your leadership team do not need to create a detailed plan in order for employees to know which tasks to focus on and which to say no to. The important thing is to have them truly grasp your where you intend to take the company, and how their department supports that intention.

Steve Bungay, in The Art of Action—a must-read on corporate strategy, execution, and performance—concisely describes the importance of conveying intention and allowing employees to use it to decide what actions to take:

Don’t tell people what to do and how to do it. Instead, be as clear as you can about your intentions. Say what you want people to achieve and, above all, tell them why. Then ask them to tell you what they are going to do as a result.

Ideally, these intentions are laid out at the corporate level and then broken out into a cascade of supporting objectives. Each individual should have a set of goals that support his or her team’s goals, which should in turn support the broader goals of the company.

When each employee has a set of goals tied to the company’s strategic objectives, they have a picture of how their work contributes to the success of the company. This not only creates a sense of purpose and belonging; it also clears them to quickly deprioritize work that doesn’t support their main set of goals. Only when a person knows exactly what they should be working on do they know exactly what they should not be working on.

Make it clear to everyone that they are not just allowed but encouraged to candidly state when their plate is too full, to decide for themselves which tasks will further the strategy and mission of the company—and to then put their full energy into those.

It’s a cultural shift that everyone will have to embrace, but the focus and momentum it will give your organization is worth the effort.

Want to build focus into your culture? Schedule a demo of Khorus, strategy-execution software that enables your employees to get the right stuff done.

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