7 Hard Truths Why Saying NO Is So Tough

How’s your day going?

Busy. Really busy.  Crazy busy.Shouldn’t this interchange be officially banned?

After all, isn’t ‘busy’ what’s expected?  Isn’t busy–and its variants (full, jam-packed, maxed-out, loaded-up) the new normal?

You’re busy.


Join the club.

According to research from the Society for Human Resource Management, 70% of employees work beyond scheduled time and on weekends; more than half cited “self-imposed pressure” as the reason. You’re busy…that’s a given.

But are you busy doing the right things?

Felix is the CEO of the US division of a major global manufacturer.  We had a coaching session this past Thursday.  I asked Felix to share some feedback with me.  Specifically, I asked him what aspect of his leadership had the most room for improvement.

I’m really busy.  There’s just never enough time.  I’d love to have a second Tuesday in every week.   I could do a better job with time management.  I’d like to get out and spend more time with our customers.  It’s really important that I meet with them and get their customer experience first-hand.

I looked into Felix’s eyes. I could see he was ready to move on to the next topic.  But I wasn’t about to let him slide.Felix, I hear you.  I believe you’re really busy. I’d love a second Tuesday as well.  And so would all of your direct reports and all of their direct reports.   You’ve got an organization with 8,000 employees, and every single one of them is really busy too.

The fact is there’s no such thing as time management.  You and everybody else get 168 hours a week.  That’s it.  All you can do is manage yourself better in the time you have.

You talked about wanting to get out with your customers more.   I hear that’s something you really want to say “YES” to doing.   To say “YES” to your customers, what are you going to say “NO” to?

Felix squirmed in the chair.

Saying NO.

It seems like it should be so easy.  But it’s harder than it looks.

Why is that?  Why is saying NO so hard?Because doing so means facing up to some very uncomfortable truths.Saying NO means:

  1. Admitting your limitations.

Thought travels at the speed of light.  In the time it takes to fire a few of your brain cells, you can conceive and imagine implementing all sorts of grand plans.  Life in the physical world, sadly, moves a lot slower—at the speed of matter.  While you can always say YES to putting more on your plate in theory (your eyes are bigger than your stomach), you don’t live in theory.  In the practice of reality, you’re going eventually hit limits.   You can always get more done in your head than you can “out there.”  Saying NO means giving up this bias, which is more commonly known as wishful thinking.

  1. Having the courage to set boundaries.

It’s easy to live in a constant whirl of activity.  There’s a certain adrenaline buzz that comes from staying busy, and that heady feeling can keep us stuck in our heads.  Disconnected from any deeper awareness, we can lack the courage (the word courage comes from the French Coeur—heart) to fight for what’s important in the face of the immediate.

  1. Fighting the power of habit and routine.

There’s a pretty good chance that what you did yesterday, you’ll do again today.  These habits form a comfort zone of inertia.  Saying YES means saying YES to the familiar.  Saying NO takes summoning the power to make a clean break from habits of the past.

  1. Getting clear on what really matters.

In the midst of chronic busy-ness, there’s a lot of noise that can drown out the signal.  It’s easy to confuse what’s essential from what’s urgent.  Are you willing to go to a quiet calm place and do the brave work of thinking?

  1. Overcoming the fear of disappointing someone else.

Who’s invested in your continuing to do what you’ve always done?  Have they come to rely on your dependability? Has your YES allowed someone else to hang back and play small? More importantly, how invested are you in your own image of being seen as consistent and dependable?  How would saying “NO” shatter this part of your reputation?

6.A willingness to take a short-term loss for a longer term gain.

Continuing to say YES to the current state sustains the status quo.  You may even recognize how the status quo is keeping you stuck, but let’s face, it, there’s something comfortable in the familiar.  You generally know what result you’re going to get.  Humans are wired to be more loss -averse than gain-inclined.  Saying NO to what you’re accustomed to means venturing out into the unknown, and even just the mere idea of stepping into the unknown can prompt fear.

  1. You’re not as all-powerful as your ego wants you to believe.

When you say NO to something, you create a YES opportunity for someone else.  If someone else was to take on part of what (up until now) you’ve just HAD to do, would the sun still rise and the earth still spin?  Of course it would.  Maybe what you think is a NEED to do is just a NICE to do. Are you willing to be humble enough to hang up your superhero cape?

After taking stock of his situation, Felix finally replied.

In the role of CEO, I’ve got a lot of figurehead duties.  For example, I’m expected to be the host when we our global colleagues to visit our US headquarters.  While it’s a nice to do, it’s not a must do.  And it takes a lot of time.  I can tap some members of the ExCom to step in and do that.

I’m also still way too hands on with what’s going on in Sales.  That comes from the years that Sales were so unpredictable.  But now, we’ve got a great leader in Steve (the head of sales.)  I’m not letting Steve really step up and lead like I know he can.   As we continued, Felix realized that his choosing to say NO was a tremendous way to build the capacity of those around him.  Saying NO was a means to empower others; to grow their skills and take on more visible and dynamic leadership roles in the company.

The other huge benefit of saying NO was that by letting go and delegating, Felix could free up his time and focus, and do the things that mattered most to him. Like visiting with customers.

By saying NO, Felix could stop dreaming of a second Tuesday, and start using the Tuesday he already had a whole lot better.

What else gets in the way of saying NO?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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