Does your to-do list grow longer every day? Do you feel like a hamster in an exercise wheel—running as fast as you can, but never gaining ground? If so, your repertoire may be short of one essential management tool: the ability to say no.
I recently met a manager for lunch. He checked his BlackBerry as we talked.
"Can these issues wait until you are back in the office?" I asked.
"Saying no isn't an option in my job," he said.
"How about not right now?" I queried.
"It's all urgent," he said, typing an e-mail response to one of the urgent requests.
"But is it all important?" I probed.
"My boss says it's all priority number one. My job is to figure out how to get it all done," the manager replied.
"Is it all getting done?" I asked.
"My entire team is working flat out. As long as everyone is busy, my boss is happy," he said, checking another message. "I'm a yes-man. I say yes, and he leaves me alone," he said, sending off another e-mail.
I wondered how happy his boss really was. And how much was really "getting done."
The job of managers is to manage—to prioritize, allocate scarce resources and organize people and work to achieve value for the company. I know that sounds obvious. But then why do so many managers say yes to every request that comes their way? A yes-man (or woman) isn't managing.
Oh, So Many Reasons
In my management workshops, I ask overwhelmed managers why they don't say no. Here are some of the reasons I hear:
No is not an option at my company.
If I say no, my boss will think I'm not a team player.
You just don't say no to your boss!
I don't want to disappoint my boss.
I feel mean when I say no.
I don't want the confrontation. I say yes, then if I wait long enough, my boss will forget he asked me.
I feel nicer when I say yes.
My boss will be upset if I say no.
The Balancing Act
What it all comes down to is this: Every request is a balancing act between three sets of needs and interests: the organization's goals, those of the other people involved (the person making the request and the people who will do the work) and the person receiving the request. Let's look at each set of interests, and the questions you need to answer.
The organization: How does the work fit into the overall mission of the group? How does the work support the larger organization? What is the current workload in your group? How will taking on new work affect work that's already in progress? Will adding more work affect quality or timing of other deliverables?