I believe that saying “no” is one of the most important things you can do to make your team stronger.  Too often, when you take one for the team and add another task to your already overflowing list, you create an unhealthy situation not only for yourself, but for your team.  By committing to work that you can’t accomplish well or on time, you jeopardize your credibility, you risk becoming a bottleneck for your teammates, and you raise the stress and anxiety for the whole team.  I’ve written about when to say “no” and how to politely decline a meeting in previous posts.

Every time I write about saying “no,” I get responses from people who have tried and been unsuccessful.  I relate.  I remember a time early in my career when one of the assistants on my team came to me almost in tears.  The boss had placed 5 items each marked urgent on her desk at 3:30.  When she explained that she had a doctor’s appointment and asked that the boss prioritize the tasks, the only response she got was that they were “all urgent.”

So let’s get real and talk about what you can do when no doesn’t mean no.

The main idea is to reduce the negative impact on your team.

  1. Be explicit about the order in which you’ll tackle the pile.  Even if the boss is playing hardball and expecting you to deliver everything, you might get more information out of him if you declare your starting point.  “OK, I’m going to start with the report for Finance.” This might cause the boss to balk and actual tell you which task to do first.  At least that way you’ll have their endorsement for what got done first (and therefore what didn’t).
  2. Talk about priorities with your teammates.  If the boss refuses to prioritize and insists that everything is equally urgent, see if your teammates can shed any light on things.  It’s possible that one of the tasks is for a teammate who is willing to put their request at the bottom of the pile.
  3. Warn people that you’re overwhelmed.  One of the reasons saying yes is such a risk to your team is that you let others down and leave them in the lurch.  If you are worried that you’re over-committed, give your teammates a heads up and see if there is anything they can do to help.  Even if they can’t help, they will have some warning that your piece could be delayed.
  4. Work smart.  The tendency when you’re really busy is to try to do three things at once.  Unfortunately, that actually slows you down.  If
  5. you have to deal with an excessive workload, make a prioritized list, close your email, turn off your ringer and start crossing one thing off at a time. Reward yourself with 5 minute breaks and feel the heady rush of making progress.

A healthy team is one in which people can negotiate about workload and priorities.  If that’s only a pipe dream for you, take these simple steps to reduce the negative impact that overcommitting has on your team.

Further Reading

Enough is Enough! Tips and Tools for Saying No

Infographic – How to Say No to a Good Idea

Embracing No-Vember

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