Five ways to overcome the ‘yes’ reflex

Reflex of yes

Not every request from others adds value to the strategy/mission. It’s not that the request is bad, it simply may not add real value. Requests for time, information, and help often flow from the pressure of the moment rather than from alignment with a strategy/mission, writes Dave Hanna

“Our greatest strengths, if overused, can become a weakness.”

Several behavioural scientists have documented this paradox.

Tor Dahl and Associates have conducted much research on time management. One of their studies documented this unnerving scenario:

The average business wastes or misdirects 92 per cent of work time in the following ways:

  • 23 per cent waiting for approvals, materials, or support
  • 20 per cent doing things that shouldn’t be done
  • 18 per cent by not doing things right
  • 16 per cent by not doing the right things
  • 15 per cent doing things that should be done by someone else

Reading between the lines is something we frequently identify as a cultural strength: a “can-do attitude.” In each of this research’s time wasters, the expectation of “can-do” is embodied. Only in this study, “can-do” equates to much wasted time.

In another study conducted by the Covey Leadership Center, more than 6,500 participants used this time management matrix, first developed in World War II, to analyse how they spent their time. In this matrix, “Important” means “critical to mission achievement.”

First, the study participants estimated how much time they typically spent in each quadrant. Then they kept a careful time log for two weeks, listing their daily activities for each of the 14 days. Finally, they assigned each activity to one of the quadrants and summarised each quadrant’s total percentages. Here are the “Before Estimates” and “After Actuals”:

How do you explain the reversal of estimated and actual 50-70 per cent in Quadrants I and III? Is it a mere coincidence?

When interviewing several participants after the study, the researchers learned from them that one of the main reasons for the QIII actual was assignments from the boss! In other words, the boss may not always correctly determine priorities, but the boss is always the boss! And the “can do” culture does its best to please the boss. One takeaway from this research is that many urgent requests also masquerade as being important.

Determining the Value of Requests
Not every request from others adds value to the strategy/mission. It’s not that the request is bad, it simply may not add real value. Requests for time, information, and help often flow from the pressure of the moment rather than from alignment with a strategy/mission. Instead of jumping to the “yes” reply, consider extending the discussion just a few moments by using some of the following responses. Each of these responses requires a respectful, honest invitation to help you (and others) better understand the situation.

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.”

—Lin Yutang

Response 1
“I have another commitment.” This may be an appointment, a meeting, or personal planning time. It is not saying “no;” it is stating a fact. Given this fact, are there other ways of meeting your needs and theirs?

Response 2
“Are some other times available?” How urgent is this request really? Is the person requesting the specific time with you because of a desperate deadline or merely because it was the first open block on his/her calendar? Find out more precisely “what is needed by when” before saying yes.

One example of this: the CEO of a global company, during his executive team meetings, would issue “To Do Items” for each Senior VP. In one meeting the CEO said to Senior VP Colin, “I would like that Report “X” that we have discussed for several weeks and  I want it on my desk in 30 days!”

Colin gasped silently. The report required an enormous amount of work. To do it and meet the 30-day deadline would require his function to suspend every other major initiative they were working on. Colin stewed on this for a few moments and then interrupted the CEO (who had already moved on to the next executive’s To-Do List). “Excuse me. Why do you need this report in 30 days?”

More than a little annoyed, the CEO said, “I’ve been after this for some time. I just want to set a deadline so I finally get it. 30 days or 60 days; I just want it done.”

Seizing this opportunity, Colin said quickly, “OK, if we have the report to you in 60 days, is that good enough?” Indeed, it was. Asking his simple question saved Colin’s entire functional group much grief.

Response 3
“Help me understand the priority.” Use this one with care, only in those situations where the connection with strategic priorities is not clear to you. Don’t ask it in a condescending way. Your intent should be to understand the true importance of the request.

Response 4
“Who would be the best person to help you?” Sometimes requesters come to you because of your position in the organization or because of your abilities. This does not mean you are the best or only person who can help them. Understand exactly what they hoped to gain from you, then consider who else might serve their needs as well or better than you.

Response 5
For leaders only (how can you help others overcome their reflex to say “yes” to you?) You could ask a few questions to the recipient, like:

  • “How does this (your request) fit with everything else on your plate?”
  • “When would this fit into your schedule?”
  • “Tell me candidly – do you think we should be doing this?”
  • “Who are others in our company who might handle this?”

Those who can see three days ahead, will be rich for three thousand years.”

– Japanese Proverb

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