Just say no to yes

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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.

Now showing on CIO.com: A shot across the bow of XaaS, which, for unaccountable reasons stands for “Everything as a Service,” even though “Everything doesn’t start with an “X” and XaaS doesn’t include Everything.

Take a look at “XaaS isn’t everything — and it isn’t serviceable.”

Comments (5)

  • Oh, I really needed this right now! I may be retired but the almost daily calls, instant messages, emails, etc, from former coworkers, friends, and friends of friends have strengthened my spine and ability to say “here’s a link to something that will help you”.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  • Someone taught me that “No” is a complete sentence and I think it was brilliant advice. Sadly many people just don’t get it and the only way to truly set boundaries is no. For those who I know that cannot handle directness, I usually reply by asking them to get me some details for what they are asking. Since most are just passing along work, they rarely do.

    All of this sounds harsh and it is. But the other option for businesses is to continue to do the wrong things for the wrong people. Influence turns into strategy for many.

    I am 100% pro-teamwork and helping each other out. There are just too many people roaming around with bad ideas that they are trying to pass off without any vetting or real consideration.

    Note that when I delegate I always discuss the workload of the person I am delegating to and make sure that any goals are mutually agreed upon.

  • Loved the line “maintaining the line that separates empathy from agreement.” So very important!

    Your ‘facade’ should also include a smile – a real smile, not a practiced smile – much is tolerated when said with a smile.

  • To repeat Dave, “No.” is a completely appropriate sentence.

    And it is usually unexpected. Otherwise, we are negotiating.

    In my observation, there are rarely dilemmas. We know when the “favors” are one-sided.

    I doubt there are many readers that will not help someone out, knowing the person they help will always be available, and always be willing when we need help. Most of us know people that we would not hesitate to help.

    But we know a lot more freeloaders. In reference to Bob’s article, they would rather ask me to do a spreadsheet than to take a couple hours to learn it (or even ask if they can sit next to you and take notes).

    For those that get hit up to do favors for freeloaders, have a few “to do” items they can do in return. “Sure, I can do this spreadsheet. I was tasked with doing a physical inventory of all the desktops in the building. Would you go ahead and knock that out for me?”

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