My client Maddie was being completely run by her inner bully when we started working together. As we were reviewing what was her “plate” of work commitments, the list went from bad to simply unmanageable.
One day, we were in a coaching session, working through what was most important so that Maddie (not her real name) could set her priorities.
The picture was simply impossible.
It reminded me of the time I went to a buffet, where an enormous man next to me kept piling things onto his plate. A little bit of every single dish was going on his one plate. From where I was watching, it looked like he never even paused to consider "do I want the crab wontons?" He just kept piling. He had a fantastic balancing act going on there - as long as he didn't move.
But they don't let you EAT the food AT the buffet. A trip across the room was required in order for him to partake. He dropped little bits of food all the way back to his table, leaving a trail of crumbs and gluttony.
Looking at Maddie’s calendar was like watching the man with the overfull plate. There was no space for what really mattered to get done, much less get done well. Bits and pieces of her projects were dropping to the ground and falling through the cracks. She was in a constant game of scrambling to keep up.
Most of her energy was being directed at playing catch up, fixing mistakes and putting out fires, rather than on strategic thought, understanding the new competitive landscape, addressing the change forces hitting an at exponential rate or taking care of the relationships of the people in her work circle.
Whatever was left of her energy was directed at worrying about what she had missed.
Maddie was like too many of the people I work with in the business world: very good at putting on the “I’ve Got This” face while covering up her fear and panic that something big will get dropped.
She was even good at covering it up with me, even though an executive coaching relationship is designed to get at the root of exactly this type of discomfort and resolve it. Pretending that everything is ok is a very hard pattern to break.
Instead, we cover up the cover up. I certainly have done THAT more times than I care to admit.
In our meeting that day, Maddie finally let down her guard so we could really get to work at solving the problem rather than just working harder and pretending everything was ok. I asked her: "What are you saying no to?" Her answer: "We can't say no. We have to do everything.”
And there it was: the root of the problem. It was not that she believed she had to do everything. That’s part of the cover up.
The ROOT of the problem was that she feared using one of the most powerful tools she had in her arsenal. She refused to say no because saying no meant that SHE was somehow not enough.
The myth that we have to say yes to everything is one of the biggest elephants in the room in corporate life. We don’t dare say no.
Saying no means I’m weak. Saying no means I’m flawed. Saying no means I can’t really do my job. Saying no will make the boss mad. (And I really don’t like it when people get mad.) Saying no will get me fired. Saying no means I’m letting down my team. Saying no means I’m a failure.
It’s like we have an inner bully constantly whispering in our ear: “You are not enough.”
So we say yes to everything which means we say yes to nothing.
We are just like the huge man walking back to his table, losing a little bit of food and our dignity as we try to have it all, while savoring absolutely nothing.
I looked at her and said "If there is not a ‘no’, there is no yes. You have essentially chosen to do nothing."
Based on the look on her face, my comment hurt and she started explaining. I listened carefully as she explained extensively how important everything was, how demanding her boss was, how proud her team was to show up for ALL the work and of course, how busy they were. It was all a sign of just how valuable her team was to the organization. Didn't I see that?
When I put myself in her shoes, I DID see that. I've walked many miles in those shoes. I know the merry-go-round of busy-ness so well. That belief is one of the biggest traps of business. "I can't say no - I have to do it all."
Here’s the key: It’s just a belief, a story that lots of people buy into. It’s not The Truth. High performers are saying no all the time and so can you.
There are three elements to getting past the story and building the portfolio of yes’s and no’s that work for you:
Changing your beliefs and “operating rules” doesn’t just happen. Like changing any habit, it takes planning an alternative to your customary reaction to make a change. It also takes practice, persistence and clarity. We will explore how to get all of those things in the remaining chapters.
Note: This is the second chapter of the eBook I’m publishing June 15 titled “Master The Art of Saying No.”
If you want to make sure and get your free copy, sign up for my coaching digest, I will be announcing it when it is published.
Taming the Inner Bully
Here's a newsflash: Nobody anywhere is doing it all, I don't care what they say in the project status meeting or on their Facebook or Linkedin page. High level performers have mastered the art of saying no and they are constantly working on the clarity and strength to do it. The people you know playing at the highest level are saying no all the time.
Really. I promise.
That’s the good news. Now for a reality check. Developing the inner strength to stand up to your inner bully IS your work. The more you learn to face your own questions about yourself, the freer you will be to focus on what really matters in relationships and your endeavors.
My inner bully ran me for the first 15 years of my corporate life. Even as I became aware of the tyrant mindset that deeply cared what other people thought, wanted people to like me and demanded complete perfection, no amount of awareness stopped me from acting on it.
It was like a shield that protected my squishy insides from making difficult decisions, dealing with people walking all over me, and asserting my true point of view.
Over time, I’ve worked on building on what I call “the Invisible Tools”, which are those unseen capabilities that give us the strength to go against the current, be present and operate from our best, true self. From that strength, we can choose what we say no to – and what we say yes to – in a strategic, mindful, balanced way.
What we say “Yes” to and what we say “No” to establishes our agenda – and it reveals who’s really running the show.
Saying yes to everyone else’s agenda and no to your own leads to sadness, resentment, anger and a life lived for someone else.
Saying no to everyone else’s agenda and yes only to your own is an insular, self-absorbed way to live.
Somewhere in the middle is a portfolio of yes’s and no’s the are uniquely suited to achieve your goals. More importantly, your portfolio of what you will and won’t do allows you to bring your uniqueness to the world.
At the most fundamental level, your actions and decisions are a portfolio of Yes’s and No’s, and these set the strategic agenda of your life and work. What you say yes to, even if it’s that kind of accidental “yes” that you get swept up in, drives what on your agenda and calendar.
You have more choice than you realize and frankly, an obligation to say yes only to those things you can do rather than adding things to your plate that will fall between the cracks and generate cracks in your relationships.
That’s all well and good, you may say. But the questions I have heard from the hundreds of leaders I’ve worked with over the years are much more practical:
There are many ways to address those questions.
Note: This is the introduction to an extensive “eBook” that will be ready for publication by June 15. My intention for this article is to help you address those questions from your best, most autonomous self rather than your inner bully.
If you want some “how to’s” on the different ways you’ve gotten caught up in saying yes, some artful ways of saying no and an introduction to using your Invisible Tools to develop self awareness and inner strength, click here and subscribe to my Coaching Digest.
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