As a leader, one of your primary roles is to "steer the ship" of your team, department or organization. This requires that you make many decisions every day, both big and small that ensure you stay on the path to delivering on your promises and realizing your vision. In fact, your smart choices continually shape the future of your team or organization for better or for worse. No pressure, right?
Do we focus on the new product for the current sales cycle even though the sales collateral isn't ready yet?
Do we add more training for the customer service team even though their metrics are pointing to happy customers?
Do I hire someone even though I'm too swamped to onboard and train a new employee?
At times it may seem complicated, but consider that the essence of a leader's daily decisions can be reduced to two basic choices - yes and no.
...What will you focus on and what won't you focus on?
...What will you do and what won't you do?
...What will you give your attention to and what will you put aside for now or for good?
This is a piece of cake, right?
It sounds simple, but the challenge most of us face is that saying "yes" is much easier than saying "no." It can also seem easier to refrain from responding at all so we can avoid the discomfort of saying "no." Yet consider that if you don't say "no," refraining from saying "no" may very well be interpreted by others as a "yes."
So, now do we say "no" in our workplaces? Of course, you know you can't do everything. You also know that it's impossible to make everyone happy despite your best intentions. Unfortunately, knowing these things doesn't make saying "no" any easier though. High-performing individuals struggle even more with saying "no" because of their tendency to have big aspirations and high expectations.
That's why the hardest decisions you as a leader will make are the ones that require you to seriously consider "no" as an option and a willingness to say "no."
Sure, it's tempting to keep your options open, but there is often a significant cost to you and your team for failing to decisively say "no." Among the costs are unsatisfying progress, missed deadlines, working too many hours and commitments not being kept! These pitfalls ultimately lead to an experience that can go all too quickly from frustration to an overwhelming pace to team burnout.
What failing to say ‘no' looks like
The symptoms of failing to say "no" enough are easy to spot. They include sticky situations such as persistent complaints from employees that there is too much to do and that deadlines and priorities keep shifting. It's also common to as a leader to develop a perpetual list of important things that you simply can't find the time to work on..
Unfortunately, we have come to accept that these things are just part of modern organizational life. I'm busy! She's busy! We're all busy!
The good news is work doesn't have to be like this.
How to say ‘no' or ‘not now'
If we're being realistic, the pressure of too much to do and not enough time and resources to do them all will never go away. However, too much to do and not enough time are the circumstances, not the problem. The real problem is our resistance to saying "no" strategically and deliberately.
So the next time you recognize these symptoms in yourself or those you lead, try pausing for a moment to consider seriously this decision-making question: what can I say "no" or "not now" to that would give us the freedom to narrow our focus and more constructively invest our time, attention and energy?
You may need to renegotiate a few projects or tasks to get them off your plate, but you might just be surprised by how much more progress you will make on the things that truly matter most when you learn to say "no" early and often. Good luck on your decision making, today and tomorrow!