It isn’t just timid underlings who find it tough to say “no” to requests when they already have too much on their plate. Even many senior managers and CEOs say “yes” when they shouldn’t which hurts their performance and, ultimately, their company’s.
The solution, advises Michael Bungay Stanier, is not to focus on saying “no,” but on saying “yes” more slowly. In his book Do More Great Work, Stanier, a Toronto-based business coach, advises saying, “Before I say ‘yes,’ just let me make sure I understand what you’re asking for.” Then, he writes, you should follow up with three types of questions:
1. Why me? Ask the requester questions such as, “May I ask why you’re asking me?”, “Have you considered anyone else?” and “Have you considered asking X? He has some experience with this.”
2. What’s the brief? Ask questions such as, “When you say ‘urgent,’ what’s the latest this task must be done by?”, “If I could do only part of this, which part would you like me to do?” and “What does ‘finished’ look like for this?”
3. What’s the big picture? Ask questions such as, “How does this fit in with our three key priorities for this week (or month or year)?” and “What should I not do so I can do this?”
Stanier says the requester might answer all your questions so convincingly that you’ll be happy to say “yes” to the task. But this is rare.
More likely, the requester will promise to get back to you with answers. With any luck, that’s the last you’ll hear of it because she’ll just ask someone else who’s quicker to say “yes.” And, as word spreads about your new habit of asking probing questions of requesters, fewer people will waste your time and theirs asking you to do something they should really ask of someone else.