Mark Craemer No Comments

Recently I helped my daughter choose an elective class for high school and when I suggested drawing, she said that although she likes to draw, she’s not very good at it. The fact that my 13-year-old is already doubting her creative abilities is disheartening enough, but it got me thinking about how important it is to say yes to things that may intimidate or scare us, especially when we are young.

One of my favorite quotes is by the author Anais Nin who said: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Saying yes is important if you want your life to expand, and saying yes requires courage.

It turns out, saying no also requires courage.

The older we get the more demands we have on our time. And if we make an honest appraisal of how we spend our time in our professional lives, very likely we find that we are actually doing a number of things we probably should have said no to. And had we said no, we could now be saying yes to things that are much more important.

But saying no is often difficult.

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism, he writes about what he calls the “Paradox of Success.” In this paradox he describes four phases we likely go through in the workplace:


Phase 1:

We have clarity of purpose and this enables us to succeed at our endeavor..

Phase 2:

We have success and we gain a reputation as a “go to” person. We are seen as someone who is always there when you need him or her, and we are then presented with increased options and opportunities.

Phase 3:

We have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, and it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.

Phase 4:

We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

This paradox shows up when we excel as an individual contributor and get promoted into managing a team of individual contributors. Then we no longer do the actual work that helped get us promoted in the first place. Our focus is less on the actual task and more on people and process. Our time is now spent in an endless number of meetings.

This paradox can sometimes lead to frustration and an unfocused and/or unfulfilling career.

But if you are able to say no to certain meetings, projects and other commitments, the better able you will be to say yes to the important ones. McKeown makes a strong argument for learning to say no, so you can devote more time and energy to things that matter most.

The higher you advance in a leadership role, the more your responsibilities become less tactical and more strategic. This means it’s vital to remove yourself from those tasks, meetings, reports, projects and other things that you can effectively delegate to others. It means learning to say no to things that are not focused on the strategic outcomes you are expected to achieve. As author Michael Porter says “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

So when exactly should you say no? According to Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, there are bad reasons to say no and good reasons to say no.

Bad Reasons to Say No

  • I don’t like the person (unless you really don’t like the person).
  • I’m comfortable and I don’t want things to change.
  • Attack is the best form of defense.

Good Reasons to Say No

  • Now I know it’s not a fit.
  • I’ve thought about what my core priorities are, and I’m willing to hold the line.
  • I’m trying to build a reputation as someone who’s strategic and thoughtful.

Many of us may feel that we don’t really have the option to say no. And in many cases this may be true. In those cases, it will be important to say yes, however reluctantly, and see what can be removed or delegated so you can remain focused on and achieve your core priorities.

However, I suspect in every role there is a lot of room for pushing back on requests that are not truly aligned with our primary role and responsibilities. And this is when we need to stand up and courageously say no. Saying no for the right reasons is not only good for us personally, but should also be good for the organization.

Then we can save time for the important opportunities where we can emphatically say yes.

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