Learning to not always say “yes” (or “no”): It’s a conversation

A few months ago, my boss sent an email to me and all Kwela consultants asking if any of us had availability to facilitate several 90-minute 360° Feedback debrief sessions. There was nothing particularly unusual about this email. We’re a collaborative bunch and we share the load, especially during our busiest times, which was the case here. But what was unusual in this situation is the two things that happened next:

Firstly, my response to the email. I have, like many others, always been a “yes person”. I know this stems from both my need to please others, and from the expectation I put on myself to “do it all”. However, since working at Kwela, I have been trying to shift this need and expectation. It’s what we teach in our workshops, and so I want to practice what we preach.

In the past, I would have responded with an automatic “yes” without thinking through how I’d fit these debrief sessions into my already jam-packed schedule. I would have rationalized the fact that they are only 90-minutes, and that I could do them in-between other sessions, or during the time I had allocated in my calendar for project management and administration tasks. This rationalization would not have extended to the reality of me needing to work evenings and weekends to meet all my commitments, because “I need to please my boss, and I can do it all”.

But this time, in the spirit of practicing what we preach, I checked my calendar to see what was realistically possible, and my response to the email was along the lines of: “I’m pretty much fully booked, but I could facilitate a couple of the debriefs if you’re really in a crunch”.

Learning new habits is hard, and as soon as I hit send, I was flooded with regret. Would my boss think less of me? Am I a bad team player? Am I inefficient? Etc.…

But what happened next is the second thing that was unusual in this situation. Instead of responding to my email, my boss called me on Teams, and this is what he said: “Thank you for always being willing to help out. You are such a team player, and I really appreciate that about you. I am not going to take you up on your offer to facilitate any of the sessions, even though I am in a bit of a crunch, because I know how incredibly busy you are, and taking these on will be too much for you.”

Mind blown! This has never happened to me before. A leader who knows and understands me, who is insightful enough to realize that people can only do so much. A leader who recognizes that just because someone says “yes”, it’s their job as leader to push back, ensure boundaries are respected and wellbeing is prioritized.

We are all busy. Across the board workloads are increasing, people resources are scarce, and the expectation is to do more and more with less and less. But we have to set limits, and this is twofold:

  1. We have to set limits for ourselves and learn to not always say “yes” – that doesn’t mean it’s always “no”, but rather it needs to be a conversation.
  2. As leaders, we need to push back in both directions – to our team members, to prevent them from experiencing burnout, and to our leaders, until the push back goes all the way to the top and the message is received at the highest level of the organization – when it’s too much.

Kwela’s Get Organized (Time Management) course delves further into managing workloads and learning to not always say “yes”.

Helen Schneiderman, Partner