A lot of first-time leaders say yes too frequently. They say yes to every request or interruption. They say yes because they want to please people, or they feel guilty, and sometimes fear. Another reason new leaders say yes is that they don’t know how to say no. As Steve Jobs once said, “It’s only by saying no but you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” In this article, I’ll share some approaches you’ll find helpful.
There are dire consequences when a leader cannot say no. If a leader is continually saying yes, it’s certain they will accumulate more work than they can handle. Their calendar fills up, their stress levels increase, and they feel overwhelmed. With their work calendar filled with requests from others, new leaders feel like they need to put in extra hours to “catch up.” This is a recipe for burnout.
Here are some useful approaches to say no in a polite and meaningful manner.
“No, not yet.”
A practical reason why you can’t say yes now is that you don’t have enough time. If you would consider saying yes to the request, let people know when they can try again in the future. If the request is urgent people often find an alternative.
“Let me check my calendar”
Instead of adding a task to your to-do list, consider scheduling that task in your calendar. If you can’t find space in your calendar you’ve got too much going on. Then you can explain to somebody you don’t have the time to do it right now. Based on your calendar you can then offer a time in the future when that task can be taken care of.
“I can take care of that task for you but I also have this other task. Which one is more important to you right now?”
In a limited time box, like a day, you can only achieve so much. When somebody approaches you with a request, they may not realise what other commitments you have. Working on their request implies you will not work on other tasks you have. By raising the visibility of the tasks you have, you clarify their priorities and agree on the most important item. As the old saying goes, “If everything is important nothing is important.”
“This week won’t be possible, but we can consider it for next week”
This strategy comes straight out of agile software development. XP and Scrum popularised the concept of time-boxing with iterations. A one or two-week iteration provides enough focus time to complete work but with enough flexibility to adapt to change for the next iteration. Kanban took this one step further, allowing reprioritisation of work not yet started. Unlike waterfall processes, the trick here is not to commit for long time horizons like 3+ months. If you’re committed at 100% capacity for a long time, you have zero ability to adapt.
“I can help you with this once you’ve done that”
I worked with a person once who had an endless set of requests. Although I wanted to help, they hadn’t spent any time thinking about their problem. It wasn’t clear to me exactly why or where they needed my help. I let them know I would be happy to help but only after they had prepared. This approach makes it clear how or what they need to prepare, before you spend time with them.
“I can’t help you with this, but X can”
I like this approach, particularly for tasks I shouldn’t be doing. Instead of saying no, you are offering them a way they can fulfil their need. A classic example. “I can’t provide you administrator access, but the IT Helpdesk can help you out.”
Saying no doesn’t have to be difficult
Tony Blair once said, “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes.” Experienced leaders know when to say yes, but more importantly, they also know when to say no. Unless you learn how to say no as a leader, you’ll never be able to manage your time effectively. Learn to say no and you’ll be able to say yes when it really matters.
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