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Saying No can be a Big Yes

As an executive coach I have recently experienced the privilege of co-facilitating a group coaching session on self-leadership.  Self-leadership essentially means getting our own house in order.  More technically, self-leadership means:a process of self-influence to achieve an optimum state of motivation and self-direction needed to perform what one sees as necessary and unavoidable. The self-leadership process includes mental, cognitive and behavioural strategies that give strength, purpose, meaning and direction to the effort toward effectiveness in performing tasks one needs to perform.  It covers: self-goal setting; self-observation; visualising successful performance; evaluating beliefs and assumptions; self talk; and self-reward, measured through the Revised Self-Leadership Questionnaire, by Houghton and Neck, 2002.

As you can see, the definition covers a lot, and essentially speaks to a well-rounded, interdependent and contributing person.

A common theme from participants of the group coaching session was the importance of being seen to be capable, coupled with the pressure of feeling that they are not able to say ‘no’ to more work activities.  This is within a ‘jittery’ climate of organisational restructures …like those of Telecom and NZ Post.  The message we’re sending ourselves is ‘we’re keen to keep our job but if we say ‘no’ then we may lose our job’.  However, this ‘if…then’ link can be overplayed.  Done responsibly, saying ‘no’ to more work is integral to our job effectiveness.

The importance of saying ‘no’ is not new and is covered well in most assertiveness skills courses.  What is new [to some of us] is doing something about it, without overreacting to requests to do more.  We may leave it far too long before we say something and when we do, it may come across as overly emotional, explosive or harshly cyncial.  And we may lash out at the least deserving, either at work or at home, leaving them to lick their wounds.  So the trick is, to early on register the feeling in ourselves, then calmly remove ourselves and ‘think on’ to the following conditions for success.

Saying ‘no’ is easier when the following conditions for success are in place:

  • Get crystal clear on our job purpose, i.e. in one phrase, ‘my job exists to…..’ It’s not the title of our job, but what your job is there to do.   Often the word ‘enable others to’ is there in our job purpose.  So if I was to follow you around with a video camera how much of ‘enabling’ would I see?  With job cuts, we may end up with more doing-the-doing from someone else’s old job, than actually leading.
  • Understand our personal purpose.  This doesn’t have to be a deep thing.  It can be just purely appreciating where we can add value and doing more of our ‘sweet spot’ activities.  Have we got scope to engineer situations, so we can do more of those ‘sweet spot’ activities?  When we do, it makes us happier, builds our personal brand and consequent marketability.
  • Know and spend the bulk of our time on our high leverage activities (rather than lots of tasks).  Again, if I was to follow you around with a video camera, how much high leverage activity would I see? Do we really feel we can have an impact on how we do our job?  Theoretically the more senior we are, the more freedom we have.  Take a note for a week, ideally three weeks if you can bear it, to note down the key activities and whether they are really making a difference to you, to your customers and to your direct reports….
  • Make the distinction in our own head between ‘doing it all’ and feeling valued.
  • Set boundaries and expectations clearly with others.  In the group coaching session referred to earlier, participants gave several recent instances of where there were ‘opportunities’ given to them to take on another activity that was not core to their job.  Being able to state what our job is there to do and its priorities makes it easier to say no.
  • The tone needs to be measured and in control.  Be assured that you can say pretty much anything to another if you speak your truth using ‘I’ statements and if you leave the other person’s self-worth in tact.
  • Jointly find solutions.  This takes calm and headspace.  Entering into a conversation where we brainstorm possibilities for how the activity can be done is useful, since we show we’re keen to have it resolved.
  • Be proactive in managing changing priorities.  Have the discussion sooner rather than later with our manager and have solutions ready.  What out of x, y and z is a priority?  And keep them informed on progress.

There is no one thing that will get us responsibly saying ‘no’, but a clear head, underpinned by a sense of purpose and progress makes it far easier to do so in a jittery employment environment.

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