Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

To Be Productive, Learn to Say No

Dear Justin,

I recently read your post about the person who is overcommitted. You suggested ways for him to manage his to-do list. I think they’re really helpful ideas. But what about those of us on the other end of that relationship? I work with a group of great, creative, and intelligent people, but they are unable to say no to anything. We have several projects running at the same time and there are some who commit to every one of them. As a result, others in the group are always either waiting on them or covering for them. Do you have any strategies that would help the group function more effectively and efficiently?

Picking Up Slack

Dear Picking Up Slack,

This is where Crucial Conversations skills can support productivity habits. Author David Allen often says, “You can do anything, but not everything.” Productivity depends on a person’s ability to say yes and no. But if you’re living the GTD skills and your teammates are not, it can make things difficult. In order to address your team’s productivity habits, you’ll need to hold some crucial conversations. Here are some suggestions, separated according to your role in relation to your team members.

If The Person Works For You

1. Address the problem by focusing on the skills your team member needsto build for ongoing performance and career success. “Ongoing” is the key word here—don’t wait six months or more for the “formal” performance review to talk about concerns. Great managers talk about this stuff regularly, and often in the moment when they see it. I’ve heard too many people say, “My manager had concerns about my performance, but they didn’t say anything for six months. Why didn’t they bring it up earlier?” If you wait, you may make things worse, not better.

2. Connect your team member’s behavior to the stuff THEY care about most. Doing this requires you actually know what they care about, what motivates them, why they get out of bed in the morning. If you don’t know, ask ASAP. Discover their top three or four goals and visions for their career development. Once you have this, help them see the potential disconnect between their daily actions (saying yes to everyone and everything) and their long-term goals. Help them see that trying to do too many things results in doing everything with less precision, efficiency, and focus.

About five years ago, I wanted to change the direction of my career. My manager and I had a frank conversation about my goals and hopes. She helped me see the new behaviors I’d have to adopt and old behaviors I’d have to abandon. At the time, I was accustomed to saying yes to almost every request I got from our sales team. My relationship with the sales team was strong—because I said yes and I delivered for them. But in order to accomplish my long-term goals, I needed to start saying no a little more often. This was tough. I knew I would disappoint some of the sales reps. But my manager assured me that if I didn’t FOCUS, I’d be less likely to reach my new goals.

One caveat here. I wasn’t able to drop all my responsibilities in that moment. I still needed to say yes to things my manager deemed critical. But gradually, over the next few years, my yeses changed to noes and I experienced an amazing shift in my career that has yielded awesome dividends. Learning to say no has been better for my career, my family, and my organization.

The point is we often say yes because we lose sight of our long-term goals and get caught up responding to immediate requests. Help your employee see a connection between their current behavior and the long-term consequences of it. Natural consequences are more motivating than imposed consequences. Helping your direct reports see the natural consequences of saying yes to everything should inspire them to be more thoughtful and deliberate about what they say yes—and no—to.

If The Person Is Your Peer

1. Introduce hidden victims. I’m guessing the person(s) in question may not be aware that their “yes” habit is negatively affecting you and the team. Rather than quietly stewing or gossiping about them, help them see the natural consequences of their behavior in relation to other team members. You might say, “I know that in the moment you want to say yes to help so-and-so, but you may not notice how it throws off our existing deadlines and puts Lisa in a real bind at the last minute.”

2. Hold up a mirror. This is another way to introduce impact on others. For example, you might describe to your peer how their actions are viewed by others. “It’s starting to look like we lack discipline and focus as a team.” We all live on the wrong side of our eyeballs, so respectfully help your teammates see the other side.

You might also consider bringing these ideas up in a team meeting to help the whole team adopt new expectations for saying yes and no. You might say, “I’m noticing there are times when we say yes to requests that aren’t part of our key initiatives. I’m guilty of it myself at times. I’m getting concerned that we do this to the point of putting important deadlines and each other’s trust at risk. What are others seeing?”


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5 thoughts on “To Be Productive, Learn to Say No”

  1. Dale

    If the person works for you: 3. Consider if you are asking too much of them and properly prioritizing the work. (i.e. Are you the problem?)

  2. Peter Vajda

    In my experience, there may also be a psycho-emotional variable connected to saying “no.” If one has issues with low self-esteem, low, self-worth or feeling deficient and lives from a place of needing/wanting to be “seen,” acknowledged, appreciated, liked, etc, etc., and this is either a conscious or unconscious top priority in how they live their lives, then this needs to be addressed. Psychologists say this is especially true of women who were raised to “please.” Saying “yes” is often a manifestation to please “mommy” or” daddy” – a childhood-based learned behavior that now leaks out in adulthood – i.e., the child in the adult clothes and adult body.

  3. bean


    “…the wrong side of our eyeballs…”
    i feel like this metaphor has so much potential, but it’s being held up somewhere just before the rewarding resolution of its meaning… maybe “wrong” is too strong or not well-enough qualified…

    also, i like the way you have a breakdown for higher ups v peers; have you guys considered another breakdown (which would yield a 2×2 in this case, but at least 1×2 in others) for the “telling” perspective v the “listening” perspective in general?
    it would address dale’s point somewhat, but even better, it would detail both sides of the optimal version of this conversation; i’d like this is better because i often have a hard time applying some of the newsletters when i have the opposite perspective. (i.e. i know i shouldn’t expect my interlocutor to conform to the expectations laid out here, so your input on how to facilitate or lay the groundwork for someone adopting your advice in those cases might give me a better vision for how the two parts of such a convo would best fit together.)

  4. Kathleen

    It is interesting that his article covers employees and peers, but doesn’t discuss supervisors. What do you recommend if your supervisor has a tendency to over extend the office’s resources or your workload?

    1. bean

      @ kathleen
      my suspicion is they’ve been getting some grief from those who pay their fees about the hierarchy flattening… any thoughts, justin or others?

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