Don’t you wish you were better at saying “no” to all those extraneous requests for a bit of help at work? Every business owner and professional I know is struggling with their own workload, yet they let themselves get signed up for other people’s work, either out of frustration that things aren’t getting done, or guilt, or just plain sympathy. It’s time to stop jeopardizing your own future.
For example, as a software executive, I once had a talented engineer working for me who was always helping others, to the extent that he consistently missed his own project deadlines, and was ruining his health through lack of sleep. After some tough love by me, he admitted that he just couldn’t say no to all the people around him asking for help.
He didn’t realize that he had become part of the problem, rather than the solution. I found him a coach, and we suggested the following steps that may help you as well in declining requests from peers, without leading with the “no” that you find hard to express:
Ask for a small delay, to give you time to think. Even though your first reaction is that this request will only take a second, it always pays to assess your own workload and deadlines before jumping into another commitment. A good approach is to buy some time with a small delay, such as “Let me just finish this task, and I’ll stop by to see you.”
After some thought, you may realize that you are already overloaded, and this new request is not so easy. Also there may be someone, or additional homework, that you can suggest quickly. Always be sure to stop by as promised, to maintain your credibility.
Offer one-minute mentoring up front, and stick to it. Have you ever noticed how many “Do you have a minute?” requests turn into an hour or two of your time? Without saying no, and without a major impact on you, most people will appreciate a quick pointer or two to get started. Ask them to come back with specific results, and don’t accept less.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to actually take over and do the job for the requestor, rather than make sure they do the work themselves. If you do their job, they don’t learn anything, and you can bet they will be back again soon. Both of you suffer.
Positively point out a better alternative source for answers. Now is not the time to complain about being over-loaded or mistreated. A better approach is offer the loan of a guide book or documentation that you would have to review first anyway, or point out an expert in the department or outside who might be able to answer the question directly.
For people who are inexperienced or new to the job, this is the best help you can give them. For slackers and people just looking for a shortcut, you need to stand firm or you will find yourself slipping to their level. Doing many things poorly won’t help anyone.
Ask the requestor for help in making your help time available. Look for a win-win approach. For example, you both might visit a supervisor to re-prioritize your work, or you may even trade assignments. At minimum, you need to make sure that you get credit for your time and contribution, since most help requests tend to get forgotten by requestors.
Ideally, a requestor will be happy to point out to a supervisor the need for additional training or resources, or will think twice before admitting that they can’t accomplish a task without help. You should be happy to now be recognized as a frequent requestee.
Avoid using the word “no,” but humbly decline the request. Without emotion or a long-winded reply, a direct reply is the most effective – “I’d love to help you, but my time is already over-committed, so I can’t help you on this one.” It always helps to suggest a specific later time, such as come back tomorrow or give me another chance on Monday.
Soften any delay or decline with a “thanks for asking.” Research shows that people pay more attention to how your conversation ends, rather than how it starts. Keep the conversation positive, and give the requestor your full attention, including body language. Showing frustration or anger may get you out of this request, but will hurt you later.
Remember, your first obligation is always to deliver your own work. Being viewed as a “yes” person does not make you a leader. As you look around you, the most respected leaders are most highly focused on their own goals and priorities, and are more productive in the long run. Taking on other people’s work won’t increase your job satisfaction or your productivity. Don’t do it.
*** First published on Inc.com on 06/18/2019 ***
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