Learning To Say No 2021-03-22T00:47:45-04:00

Learning To Say No

Earlier today I was having a conversation with my son’s college roommate. We are very fortunate that he and his wife live here in the Washington DC area so that we can keep up our relationship with them.

During the conversation, he talked about the stress his wife is under at work and how she does not feel comfortable saying no to the people who are giving her work assignments.

This conversation reminded me of a video I used to show each time I facilitated “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” course for Georgetown University employees.  During the “Habit III – Put First Things First” part of the course, Stephen Covey would retell an anecdote about the time he was serving as the assistant to the chancellor at a major Utah university.  One day the chancellor came in to Covey’s office and gave him a major work assignment. Another major work assignment!

Covey used to keep a chart of all the current assignments on which he was working. When he started the job, he would merely keep adding assignments to his ongoing list.

After he learned the importance of priority setting Covey would take a different approach. When his boss would come in with a new assignment, he would show him the existing chart of high priority projects. He would say, “I am already working on these five important projects, all of them important according to you. Which project would you like like me to pause in order to take on the new project?”

This approach worked more effectively than merely “saying no.”  However, it was an important strategy for making the boss aware of the work that was already on Covey’s plate.

Too often we as leaders do not maintain accurate awareness of the projects we have already assigned our direct reports.  We think nothing of adding one more priority task to their workloads.

Piling on projects is a lose-lose proposition.

-It hurts the morale of the team member being given the assignment
-It shows him or her that we are not aware of all the work we have already assigned
-It reflects the fact that we are not sensitive to the work/life balance of our teammates
-It can lead to resentment, burnout or even resignation

Learning to say “no,” to ask our boss for guidance or to seek advice from trusted advisors higher up in the organization’s hierarchy is a valuable tool for team members at any stage of professional growth.

We as leaders must endeavor to create a work environment where trust is promoted.  With trust comes honesty and transparency.  With honesty, our team members can “say no” with an explanation or ask for guidance on priority setting in the moment.

It takes time, trust and courage to learn to say no.  It is not a badge of honor to accept all work assignments without question.  If we gain a reputation for taking on all work assignments with nary a comment, we will develop a reputation as a workhorse and a tireless teammate.  However, we can also easily develop health issues that will prevent us from performing at a high level.

As leaders, it is up to us to teach our teammates that it is ok to say “no”.  With a trust-based culture and honesty existing between and among teammates at different levels of the organization, people will not be afraid to ask for advice instead of quietly accepting every assignment without comment.

As always, communication is the answer, regardless of the career stage at which we find ourselves.