Working in any fast-paced organization has its challenges. There are many things happening at once. Decisions need to be taken in a relatively short time, and various people – often from different areas of the business – need to be involved. This is compounded by high levels of complexity, uncertainty, and expectations of the stakeholders. With so many moving parts, saying yes is often easier than taking the pause necessary for saying “no.”
On one hand, technology has provided us with solutions that make our work and off-work lives better and more connected. On the other, it has, increasingly, made it difficult to prioritize the varying demands that we are supposed to satisfy. Over the course of a year, an average office worker spends nearly 1,700 hours in front of a screen. That is 6.5 hours per day. Many of us find difficulty in disconnecting from our devices and getting perspective on what we really wish to achieve. As someone working in a digital field, this is particularly challenging.
I became acutely aware of the need to disconnect and re-focus my attention on what I really hope to achieve about a year ago. At the start of an adidas employee development program, Manager Development Experience, I completed an assessment of my strengths and weaknesses.
To my surprise, my foremost area for development was to establish clear priorities that drive execution. This meant I needed to prioritize my tasks better by knowing the why behind them. It turns out that developing a practice of saying “no” has been key in my manager development journey.
The Manager Development Experience is a scientifically designed, highly successful program offered at adidas. It has just the right mix of practice and theoretical framework and generally takes about a year to complete.
Forming habits and overcoming inertia
The most fun part of the Manager Development Experience was the Growth Mindset Challenge. During this phase, participants agree to challenge their limits by doing a stretch activity on a sustained basis. The idea is to engage in the stretch activity for long enough to form a habit.
Now, that is better said than done. With the addition of two small kids in the family, I struggled over the past few years with finding time to do any physical activity – stretch or sustained. I started with something basic that was, at that point, unattainable: to jog an hour every day for 30 days. To my surprise I was able to do it!
A positive outcome in this habit forming was possible through several influences. The first of these factors is the ability to move from a fixed to a growth mindset.
Feedback draws attention to one’s current capabilities and can support establishing concrete steps for future progress. This clarity contrasts with the self-imposed limitations of the fixed mindset that restricts one from challenging the current state.
What helped equally in creating my new habit was that I (and everyone else in the group, for that matter) articulated my goals publicly with other participants. The guilt of not doing what one has promised publicly can offer the additional push needed to reach the target.
Finally, the challenge was a collaborative effort. I was paired with someone from a different part of the business based in Spain. We would regularly exchange the latest on our activities and discuss tactics to keep up the momentum.
You may be wondering if I gave up my newly acquired habit? No, I took up additional activities. Now I go to the gym and combine it with running almost every day, even if that means doing these activities late in the evenings.
Saying no helps create time to reflect and improve
As we moved on to the next stage of our learning to enhance our identified growth area, I had various opportunities to discuss ways of prioritizing and, ahem…to a large extent, saying “no” to various stakeholders. I exchanged ideas on this topic with my line manager, my immediate team, and my learning partner in the program.
I realized that a lot of what I did in my day-to-day work was due to the flow of the day, or, in some measure, to sustain workplace give-and-take relationships. In some cases, this is a legitimate thing to do, but not always! In addition, to some extent my inability to say “no” was also based on past experiences with people and cultures, where saying “no” could be considered offensive (if not downright incompetent).
But I was not alone. My immediate team also shared examples where they would find it difficult to challenge a superior’s opinion on a topic, thereby taking on tasks that did not really add value. I also realised that I would have a sense of regret when someone asked for help, and, if with all my good intentions, I couldn’t. This sense of regret interfered with my focus on the tasks at hand, at least for some time.
Additionally, there was hardly any opportunity to disengage and break the constant cycle of screen-work, in my role, to look at the big picture of why we were doing certain things (or why we should not be doing them anymore).
My learning partner developed his own rather extreme way of shutting off everything after lunch for 30 minutes every day. This meant, of course, no phone – not even social media!
Finally, as part of the program, I assimilated the learnings on essentialism, which is the pursuit of doing less and doing it better rather than filling up the bucket with more and more. This, coupled with the fact that my team and everyone around me faced similar challenges, allowed me to observe that I have far less tumultuous times after learning the art of saying “no.” In the end, this new practice also enables me to turn around my own priorities faster and better.
Of course, going by the definition of “growth mindset,” this is but the start.
To sum it up:
- Do less but know “what to do” to achieve the maximum impact.
- Take time to analyse what you are doing so that you can determine the “what to do.”
- Don’t create an island – talk to people and get diverse viewpoints.
- Remember that, by default, people tend to be helpful and ready to provide their input, which can improve the quality and depth of your work.
- Keep in mind that saying “no” can lead to constructive conversations, which sometimes generate even more meaningful collaborations.