25 Jul 2016 20:06 IST

Stop blaming the environment

Overcoming self-imposed limitations and unexamined assumptions is critical to succeeding as a leader

A few days ago, I was facilitating a workshop on “managing time and tasks” for improved productivity. The participants were all senior managers with an average experience of over 15 years. As we approached the subject in detail, I brought up the idea that we must learn to say ‘No’ without feeling guilty when we believe a request from others to be unreasonable. I also shared a variety of instances that we encounter each day, where we hesitate to say “no” when we could have comfortably said so and saved a lot of time.

No is an effective (and appropriate) response in many circumstances including the below:

When a colleague, or even your boss, demands your presence for a meeting or a call that is completely unscheduled and involves cancelling your prescheduled work.

When a colleague peeks in with a comment, “got a minute” when you are busy or tied up with work. This “got a minute?” is actually a con; when you respond with a ‘yes’, it ends up eating into your valuable time. A firm ‘no’ would have been a more appropriate response.

When your calendar is already blocked for an equally important appointment or assignment

Many participants expressed that they cannot say ‘no’ to a demand from the boss, even if such a demand / request is last-minute and would place them at a disadvantage. Their view is that such a refusal can be ‘career-limiting’.

Of course, there are situations that call for such an emergency accommodation. But this cannot be a way of life under any circumstance.

Self-limiting assumptions

My argument was that their assumption is more self-limiting than the reality. It is our hesitation, more than anything else. Senior leaders are sensible enough to understand that such a demand is unreasonable and has, therefore, to be exercised very sparingly. As we grow, we become prone to many such self-limiting assumptions and suffer from them. And conveniently, we trigger our defensive behaviour by justifying it to ourselves, saying that we work in an unprofessional environment or for a difficult boss.

I shared a clear point of view that the participants need to learn to reflect and examine their own unexamined biases or untested self-limiting assumptions in order to lead a more empowered work life. I also explained that there are factors that can help make this happen.

First, when you are a stellar performer, you have the authority of your performance that gives you the confidence to say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands of all kinds. When we are not sure of our own performance and credibility, that is reflected in our attitude of dancing for everyone’s song every time.

Positive approach

And learning to say ‘no’ with a positive approach is equally important. This approach involves four simple steps: (a) listen to the demand; (b) say, ‘no’ politely but firmly; (c) give reasons, if possible; and finally (d) suggest alternatives, if possible. This should settle the issue almost 9 out of 10 times when demands are made.

The tendency to blame the environment is an easy option. It reflects our own weakness and lack of confidence. This also reflects an attitude of pessimism and a clear external locus of control. Playing the ‘wooden leg’ and therefore feeling ‘helpless’ is a dangerous game. Doing so not only hurts effectiveness at work but, in the long run, may even hurt our health. And it can also lead to bad morale for the teams we manage.

Extra load

When we feel uncomfortable saying ‘no’, even when doing so is appropriate, we end up taking on the extra load and passing it on to our teams by deflecting the blame on our superiors. While this may give us temporary relief, we may actually end up losing respect from our teams.

Learning to overcome self-imposed limitations and unexamined assumptions is critical to succeeding as a leader.