Who’s your boss?
Your boss is whoever assigns you work.
Whoever the org chart says you report to isn’t just free to assign work to you. That’s their job description.
But many of us let colleagues be our bosses too. After your official boss has already given you enough work to keep you busy, these coworkers ask you to do them a favor, which as a practical matter means adding their favors to your already overstuffed inbox.
But the problem isn’t your infringing colleagues themselves. If it was, you’d just say no and that would put an end to it.
Nor is it a character flaw on your part – an insufficiently durable spine.
It isn’t a failure to maintain a catalog of clever comebacks either. Sure, we all wish we were snappy answerers. But in most business cultures, sharp comebacks accomplish little, other than branding you as an unpleasant person.
The problem is deeper. It’s the collection of social norms that makes turning a colleague down difficult. Faced with these norms you need … call them “counter-norms” to get you through the ordeal.
The counter-norm is more than a comeback, and more even than comebacks plus comebacks to comebacks. It’s a dialog architecture, that consists of four parts: diplomacy, your façade, an offloaded solution, and the big close. In more depth:
Diplomacy: That diplomacy matters is hardly a new thought. It’s how to avoid gaining a reputation as an unpleasant person. And while it’s been described as knowing to say “Nice doggie!” while searching for a rock, what it mostly entails is maintaining the line that separates empathy from agreement.
Façade: Your façade is your poker face. It’s the self-control that gives you an expression and body language that conceal your desire to perform an anesthetic-free splenectomy, right now and right here in the cube farm.
Offloaded solution: Just saying no, to quote Nancy Reagan speaking in a different context, doesn’t work. It sounds rude to our own ears, let alone those belonging to the person you’re turning down and everyone else in earshot. “No” with a rationale is a whole lot gentler on the diplomacy scale.
But rationales tend to be event-driven and short-lived. Claims of excessive business fall into this category. A rationale gets you off the hook temporarily, but tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that you’ll find yourself right back where you started, searching for another fresh, new, and plausible rationale.
You need something more durable, even in the face of well-rehearsed comebacks. That’s where “offloaded solutions” – solutions that solve your colleague’s problem without your involvement – come into play.
Here’s what an offloaded solution looks like when released into the wild:
A colleague and teammate asks if you can put a quick spreadsheet together for them. You respond with a rationale: “I just can’t right now. I already have a full plate plus a list of back-burner items that need my attention.”
But your colleague plays this game to win. They’re better at it than you are. They respond, “Please? You’re good at Excel – this won’t take you more than ten or fifteen minutes.”
It’s a one-two punch – a compliment, coupled with rationale-rejection. Offer another rationale and your rationales become excuses – you’re still stuck, and the dialog has damaged your image as well.
Compare this outcome to what you get with an offloaded solution:
“Ten or fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes more than I can give you. Here’s what I recommend: Our on-line training includes some very good Excel courses. Take a couple of them, then have a whack at putting together your own solution. Email it to me, along with a written account of the problem you’re trying to solve and I’ll take a look.”
“This way you won’t only get the spreadsheet you need, but all the spreadsheets you’ll need in the future, too.”
Big close: This is what blocks your interlocutor from continuing to pester you. A good general-purpose example:
“And now I really have to get back to what I was working on. Good luck with the on-line training.” Then swivel your chair back to your keyboard, dismissing your colleague from the fray without ever feeling or looking like a bad person.
Bob’s last word: This isn’t all that different from HBR’s famous “Who’s Got the Monkey” article, except that the HBR article’s focus was keeping delegated tasks delegated.
That’s important, too, but in the absence of techniques it’s one of those things that’s easier to say than to do.
Bob’s sales pitch: I just know you know people who know people, all of whom should know about KJR if they don’t already. Forward your favorites to them, and encourage them to subscribe, too.
It’s a good way to establish yourself as a thought leader.
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Take a look at “XaaS isn’t everything — and it isn’t serviceable.”