Curbing The Compulsion To Always Say “Yes” & Redefining Workplace Priorities

Remember when recruiters told you to say “yes” when asked about certain abilities?

“Yes, I can use that software.” And, “yes, I feel comfortable in a managing position.”

They were not lies per se, rather exaggerations. After all, you had plenty of time to learn these new skills once you were hired.

Today, your deficiencies may have caught up with you. If not, your compulsion to gratuitously say “yes” certainly will.

The American workforce is obsessed with the word, “yes.” When your supervisor asks questions, employees assume that their statements are rhetorical.

Can you stay late tonight? Yes, of course. Can you come in this weekend? Yes, absolutely. Do you want replace all your personal and familial priorities in favor of professional ones? Wait a minute here….

Changing your priorities is the subject of Greg McKeown’s article for the Harvard Business Review Blog, “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will.”

In the article, McKeown reminisces on the day after his daughter’s birth. A day he missed in order to attend a business meeting at the request of his boss.

“As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. And even if the client had respected my choice, and key business opportunities had resulted, I would still have struck a fool’s bargain,” he recounts.

“My wife supported me and trusted me to make the right choice under the circumstances, and I had opted to deprioritize her and my child.”

But it doesn’t always have to be a fight to balance priorities in life and work. In part, McKeown’s story is a reminder that individuals are responsible for their own choices. Sure, firm managers and supervisors will put on the pressure. Nevertheless, it’s always been our choice—even in the workplace—to say no.

So, why is it so hard to say no?

Office culture often promulgates the notion that the boss is always right. When he says jump, you ask how high or how far, even when it’s off a cliff. Associates and employees often lose sight, in these instances, of common sense.

In addition to office culture, the English language is a culprit.

McKeown points out that we frequently use the term “have to” when it comes to work assignments. The truth is, few tasks in life or at work qualify under the have-to situation.

Perhaps, “it would be best if” describes, more appropriately, how employees can feel. But again, the culpability is shared. Managers and supervisors in a position of power also have a choice to make.

As a law firm manager or managing partner, it’s easy to get carried away with directives. Yes, your job is to delegate. No, it’s not to dictate.

As a leader, you should create a culture of equality—not just of gender or race—but of yeses and nos. Allow your employees to refuse meetings or assignments when it’s the right thing to do. Family, career path, and mental health should, at times, come first for your employees.

When an associate politely dismisses a task, don’t forget to ask and understand the reasons why. Respect and communication must go two ways, even if the hierarchy technically flows in your direction.

Otherwise, you may find that your employees will take McKeown’s advice and avoid working for or with people who don’t respect their priorities.

“There are people who share your values and as a result make it natural to live your priorities,” McKeown writes.

“It may take a while to find an employment situation like this, but you can set your course to that destination immediately.”

In reverse, as the associate, don’t let language become a barrier. Learn how to communicate with due respect and courtesy when it comes time to prioritize family occasions over work ones.

Language is a tricky business. People tend to understand the meanings of the words “yes” and “no”. But, few know the correct usage for employing them.


As a manager, learn how to maximize employee performance without adding stress to the workplace with The Center For Competitive Management’s audio conference on July 13, 2012, 11:00 AM To 12:15 PM Eastern time.

Sign up for “Leadership Methods to Maximize Employee Performance” here.


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