Thursday, March 12, 2009

Let me put it this way... NO!

Early in my career, when my daily requisition of energy and ideas far exceeded the number outlets supplied by my workday, I thought it made me a loyal and valued employee if I simply did everything that I was asked to do and then some. Certainly, when I began to supervise others, I favored the Energy Junkies (EJ's)over the Energy Vampires (EV's). In time, however, I found that I was almost always having to deal with the EJ's in a frenetic manner to help them complete the multiple commitments they had taken on, while the EV's were often plodders who, in fact, did what they said they were going to do in about the time frame they said they would require. Don't get me wrong, I would rather have a colleague who steps up and solves problems before they become crises or does things without being asked, but there is a fine line between genuinely agreeing to help and saying "yes" because "no" is not in your vocabulary.

I recently observed two of my younger colleagues handling their work day and realized that one of the things that I had finally gotten better at in my old age was something that they struggle with. It is the seemingly simple, yet ineffably difficult challenge of saying, "No." In honor of the fact that NO is such a short, teeny-tiny word, I am committed to making today's post likewise short... not teeny-tiny, just short. Today's Topic? No.

Of course I can.
Several weeks ago, I was in a meeting and one of committee members asked if I could impose on someone in my office to complete a specialized task. I agreed to ask, joking that I had immense powers of persuasion. In reality, I was quite senior to this individual and when I asked the favor, the answer was, "Of course I can." I asked if they were certain and that it shold not be seen as a priority. Again, there was resounding confidence that they would "do it for [me]." Over the next few weeks, it became increasingly obvious to this person that there was simply too much on their plate. Afraid to let me down, they approached another senior administrator to help figure out what to do. He quickly answer, "Just say no." Had she said something to me, I would have said the same thing, perhaps not as quickly, but I would have said the same thing.

I tend to forget that when I was just starting out, I almost never said no. Much like my brief skiing career, I never met a run that I wouldn't take... until I was halfway down. It is doubly hard as a young professional to disappoint a mentor or superior who obviously has faith in your because they asked you to do something. There is a lesson here for both mentor and protege. The lesson is the same for both: It is very hard to say no to your boss.

Come on down!
The second episode occurred as one of my counselors was walking in from a meeting. Her next appointment was sitting in the waiting room and as she passed him, she said, "Hi! Come on down." The student followed her to her office an she sat down, without catching her breath or organizing her thoughts and started into her consultation with the student. Exceptional customer service, right? Well, maybe not. I spoke with her later about it and suggested that it was alright to acknowledge the student and instead of saying "Come on down" she could say, "Hi. Give me a minute to unpack and I will come back and get you."

In the same way that it is difficult to say no to a senior colleague, it is tough to say no to a client or customer. On most occasions, creating a boundary for a client also creates value. Think about it this way, if you always say yes or drop everything you are doing to deal with my issues, why should I worry about what you may or may not have on your schedule? On the other hand, if you are not always able to attend to me at a moment's notice, then maybe you have other things do... like you have a life and stuff.

Five easy pieces.
Here are five ways to start building your resistance to reflexively saying yes.

For whom the annoying electronic beep tolls. Do you know anybody who carries a PDA that beeps when they have an upcoming appointment? They are really dorky at meetings when they pull out their little stylus and squint at the screen and say, "No. Can't do it then. Nope. Not then either. Wow. Can't do it then."? Do you ever wonder how many of those dates would be open if everybody could see their screen? I am an iPod dork. I have my calendar on my Touch and I will almost never commit on the spot. I say things like, "That date looks open, but I don't know if Elizabeth has scheduled something else for me. Let me get back to you." Once you have time to think about it, you can then say yes... or no... from the relative safety of your office.

Can I get change for the meter? Dealing with the boss is much different than dealing with your peers. You can tell your co-worker no and there are few repercussions. Not so easy to do with the boss. If you are asked to take on an assignment, ask, "What priority should this have with my other projects?" Bosses seldom remember everything you are doing, so they will likely say, "Top priority, of course" to which you reply, "Okay, I have the Clay Feet Project and the Infinite Circle meeting that were due by the day after tomorrow and the Giant Green Bug planning meeting for the first of next week, should this move ahead of those?" One of three things will happen, you will be told to move the previous projects lower on the list or move the new project lower on the list or someone else will be enlisted to help you. (If the fourth thing happens, which is "Get them all done at once" you are working for an idiot and you should begin looking for another job. Now.)

Mr. Postman is there a letter in your bag for me? This is sort of a corollary to the above. Anytime I am asked to take on new tasks and juggle old ones, I will send a quick email that reads something like this...
Thanks for talking about the Skynet System Report with me today. Per our conversation, I will reschedule the green bug planning meeting for early August, ask Sheila to assist in completing the Clay Feet project on time and I will indefinitely postpone the Infinite Circle Meeting until after our other two projects are complete.
This functions as a reminder to both of you and is darned near as good as a well-intoned "no" in the long run.

Are you talking to me? My counselors will tell you that my pet peeve is managers from other units who approach my employees directly to perform tasks for them. They have all been empowered to say, "Gee, you should really talk with my supervisor about that." This works well internally. If a co-worker asks for you're help, just say, "Sure, let's clear it with Darryl first." You will be surprised how many requests dissipate when you present them with a less amiable target.

Just say no. With apologies to Nancy Reagan, this is really the end all. The variations are: I really don't have time right now. I am am close to swamped and this would negatively effect the quality of all my projects. Depending on the source of the request, you can also say: That's just not a priority for me (my unit) at this time. I realize it is important to you, but it will take more time (resources, money, etc.) than I have available. You have to set the limit, because no one else will.

So here we are at the end and despite my promise to keep it short and I have failed. I hope that you will forgive me, but at least I said "no" to teeny-tiny.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article, Darryl. This is something I struggled with for a long time at work! I have a boss who doesn't like to be told "no" ever. To even say it once is considered "inflexible," in her words. I've learned that if she asks me to do something I don't have time for, I say, "I was planning on getting discharge forms to the insurance company, opening 5 new cases, and providing group supervision to my staff today. Which one of those would you like me to put on hold?" She will then either back off or give me permission to put something else on hold. Sweet.