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.
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