We have got to get over our view that good team players always say yes.

From our earliest days at work, we are sent the strong message that good team players say “yes” when they are asked to do something. Really good team players step up and volunteer without even being asked. We’ve socialized team members to stretch themselves to the breaking point, all in service of “taking one for the team.”

In my experience as a manager, I find the compulsion to say yes is so strong that new employees will take on more and more work and stop only when they finally (and inevitably) drop the ball. The result is a difficult, embarrassing episode, which for some brief period of time causes them to avoid saying yes to a few things. But before I know it, my really keen team members are back saying yes to everything.

Alarmingly, this tendency to want to be helpful and to take on more and more work doesn’t lessen much even with time and experience. The same talented, aligned, and engaged people keep saying yes to too many things. The result is chronically poor execution, perpetual violations of work-life balance, and levels of stress and anxiety that make the whole team a powder keg waiting to blow.

It’s not just the over-eager team member who is to blame.

Team leaders must take accountability for the role they are playing in spreading team members too thinly. Lack of prioritization and unwillingness to make tough decisions about what is more — AND LESS — important leaves team members feeling no alternative but to add something else to their already full plates. Often, this is the result of team leaders who don’t have the courage to manage up. They grudgingly accept more and more work from above without challenging or asking for prioritization.

In the 3COze team effectiveness process, we teach the following framework for how to say no.

Delete: There are things that you just need to delete from your task list. These are things that don’t add value for you, or for the organization. For me, this includes lots of meetings that I’m only invited to as a courtesy. Once it’s clear that I’m not adding value—or it’s value that overlaps with someone already in the room, it’s better for me to make the tough choice to say no to that meeting. To identify opportunities to delete ask yourself: “To what extent is this still relevant?” “How are you using these outputs?” “What would be the impact be if we stopped this?”

Delay: Sometimes you need to delay action. When “issues” arise, people can catastrophize and cause crazy amounts of work in the process. It’s important to assess the core issue and to wait for the flailing to stop before jumping into knee-jerk action. I experience this when I’m traveling on business. Frequently I’ll pick up a day’s worth of messages at the same time. It’s not all that uncommon to get one message recorded in the morning that says “urgent” and asks me to do x, y, and z and then another recorded 2 hours later saying “no need to worry, we’ve handled it.” They got the job done and I didn’t add to the mêlée by trying to get involved.

Distribute: Some work is best done by someone other than you. Taking on work that you could do—but slowly and with questionable quality—just doesn’t make sense. If someone is more efficient and effective, distributing the work to them is better than doing it yourself. As a senior member of our consulting team, I’m often a go-to person for meeting with new clients. I’m often not the best person to represent the team, given the issue at hand or the industry of the client. What work do you do that would be better distributed to someone else?

Diminish: Perhaps the most valuable strategy for saying “no” is not to say it outright. The diminish strategy pares work back to its core to reduce the effort required, without losing the essential elements that are adding value. One area where I see opportunity for this technique is reporting. With many of my clients, their reporting requirements mean they spend more time reporting on the results they achieved than on actually achieving them. To diminish work, ask questions such as: “What are you trying to achieve?” What is the most important part of this?” How could we make this more manageable?”

Saying “No” is important to team effectiveness. If you do it right, you make friends. Do it wrong and you may make enemies. Here are my three tips for saying “no” without alienating people.

Tip 1

Help them question whether the work needs to be done at all. Most people have not yet become deliberate about the things they do, and don’t do. Ask some good questions to help the person assess whether or not the work is necessary.

Example: If someone came asking me to speak at an industry event that I didn’t feel was an effective use of my time, I might ask “Who is the target audience for the event?” “To what extent are the people there potential buyers of our services?” “Where would this event fit in relative priority to the other 3 we are thinking of sponsoring?”

If they come to the same conclusion as you that it can be deleted, you’re done. If not, go to #2.

Tip 2

Tell them what you are saying yes to. If you have gone through a process of determining your priorities and defining what is your primary value in the organization, share your answer with them.

Example: If I had to turn down a consulting opportunity brought by a colleague I might say “Thanks so much for thinking of me. This looks like fun work. Right now I’ve agreed with the Managing Director that my focus is on working with Executive Teams and I feel like if I take this assignment, I won’t be adding my full value for the team.”

Tip 3

Give them another way to accomplish their goal. If question #1 has made it clear that the work needs to be done and question #2 has made it clear that you won’t be the one doing it, help them figure out who will.

Example: If I had decided not to attend a sales meeting with a potential customer, I might say “What will it take to win this assignment?” “For whom on the team is this really the sweet spot?” “Who would be thrilled to get this opportunity?”

People will find it refreshing that you have an authentic conversation with them about what you will and won’t take on. It’s much better than saying “yes” to something that you will never get around to. Just remember, you need to afford the same courtesy to the people who say “no” to you.

Further Reading

Infographic – How to Say no to a Good Idea

Enough is Enough! – Tips and Tools for Saying No

Four simple steps when saying “no” doesn’t work

Video: Know When to Say “No”