Many of us are familiar with the concept of Getting to Yes, an iconic negotiation strategy developed by Harvard professor Roger Fisher and others. For many managers, however, the more difficult day-to-day challenge is “getting to no” which is what we call the process for agreeing on what not to do.
“Getting to no” is a classic management issue because the vast majority of us tend to accept requests and assignments without first filtering them by what’s possible, what’s urgent, and what’s less of a priority. In an age when we are encouraged to be “team players” and responsive to colleagues, it may seem counter-intuitive or even selfish to encourage managers to say no more often, but that is exactly what many need to do. While saying yes to every assignment may initially please senior execs, it usually leaves people over-stressed and inundated with work — a lot of which ends up half-finished or forgotten. In the long run, no one is happy.
In one media company that we worked with, for example, the senior executive team developed a three-year strategy for getting ahead of the increasingly digital and socially driven media environment. They assigned different pieces of it to middle managers who had relevant knowledge, experience, and organizational responsibility. Given the importance of this work, all of these managers accepted their assignments. But since they didn’t drop anything else from their plates, the entire strategic endeavor was akin to an after-school elective – something that had to be worked on once all of the regular work was completed – and not much was actually accomplished.
Similarly, a technology firm hired a new president for one of its regions to jump-start local sales growth. Once she arrived, a dozen different leaders, from marketing to IT to R&D, invited her to meet with their teams. Meanwhile, the CEO kept asking her to come back to headquarters to update the corporate leadership team. After six months of saying yes to every meeting, the constant travel had begun to take its toll. She had a much better understanding of the company, but she had made no progress at all on the growth objective.
In both of these companies, the managers were setting themselves up for failure by trying to over-please. In the media company, nobody was going to refuse a key strategic assignment, especially with board and senior executive involvement; yet there was no way to actually accomplish these projects without stopping lots of other work. A more productive approach might have been for one or more of the overloaded middle managers to cut through the conspiracy of silence by organizing a meeting with the head of strategy, the CEO, and other senior executives. As a group, they could have talked about the common dilemma they all were facing and considered either taking something off of their plates or changing timelines.
In the technology firm, the new president wanted to please all of her constituents, so she filled her first six months with meetings, leaving no time to address her most significant challenge. As an alternative, she might have established a “calendar budget” for herself from the beginning – with a commitment to spend only a certain amount of time away from the region, and a focused amount of time on the growth challenge. Then she would have had a good rationale for postponing some of the “get to know you” trips and meetings until she had a solid plan for addressing her most significant business issues.
What’s worth remembering is that learning how to “get to no” is critical for both your success and your company’s. Organizational effectiveness requires tradeoffs. Managers are responsible for addressing which ones to make when new assignments are doled out. They are not responsible for pleasing everyone. For example, if a new strategic project becomes top priority, managers need to ask what tradeoff should be made to accommodate it. And it’s important to engage in these dialogues regularly.
The other key lesson is to remember is that it’s okay to raise questions and push back on assignments and requests, even if it feels somewhat scary to do, such as when you’re answering to powerful people. For example, you could ask senior leaders whether a new assignment takes precedence over some other project that’s already on your plate, and if so, how should you let people know about the change of timing and shift of resources. You also could ask how the new project fits with the broader strategy and the organization’s priorities. And you can team up with colleagues to pose these questions. Senior leaders may not have thought every scenario through, so raising them likely won’t be viewed as insubordination or trying to get out of extra work, but rather a constructive approach to exploring what needs to be done.
Sure it’s easier to just say “yes” in the short-term; but taking on an assignment that you don’t have the bandwidth for, or ones that will compromise other key goals, won’t make anyone feel good about you in the long run — and it won’t help your organization achieve its goals. That’s why “getting to no” is such a critical challenge to master.