The “No” word – courage under fire

  • by Rob Hart
  • 01 Nov, 2017

The Thriving Manager - Article #2

The Thriving Manager blog article 2

During a recent training event we ran, we had a great discussion about saying “No” regarding workload and new tasks.  This blog article in our series “The Thriving Manager” is titled The “No” word – courage under fire.

Rob Hart, of Manage and Thrive Training, says “In my experience, very few people want to say “No” to their manager. Very few managers want to hear their staff say “No” when allocated new work.” Read on to learn more about this difficult but sometimes necessary issue…

From an employees’ perspective:

There are two important factors at play in any situation when saying “No” to additional work or responsibilities becomes a possible course of action:
  • People don’t want to be perceived as weak, inefficient or incapable.
  • People have an overriding need to keep the job because unplanned unemployment could spell financial meltdown. Keeping personal and family finances afloat can eclipse the desire to say “No” to unmanageable work – even if the current workload is destroying health, welfare and relationships.
taking on more work than is manageable can result in a day that looks like this
Some people may naturally exist on four hours sleep. For some of these people, it may be tolerable to be entirely committed to work, so there is limited time to nurture their own health and fitness, wider interests and relationships. Of these people who are personally happy with the situation, some may find that the other people in their lives find it tolerable too. This kind of situation, however, probably seems unappealing to many people. This is especially relevant if individuals do not thrive on four hours sleep per night. Yet people can find themselves involuntarily working and living like this.
Such a workload may eventually affect health, happiness, and relationships with family, friends, ourselves.  Even a basic Google search suggests that too much workload impairs work productivity and quality.  As far back as 2003, The Health and Safety executive identified that fatigue is a clear result of working long hours (source: Working Long Hours, 2003 ).  The 2003 report was ambiguous as to whether long hours led to poor performance. 2017 Estimates from the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) (source: UK Health and Safety Executive) show that "The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work related stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, including tight deadlines and too much responsibility and a lack of managerial support." A BBC article of 1st November 2017 provides more insight on the effects on our bodies and mental health arising from too little sleep ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-41816398) .   
Real world anecdotal experience is nonetheless valuable, though. Rob Hart, of Manage and Thrive Training, identifies a clear correlation “In my experience,” says Rob, “long hours lead to fatigue. This fatigue in turn leads to a lower attention to detail, and lower motivation to excel when mental and physical reserves are low. Quality of output and rate of production reduce.” Rob also considers the possible consequences: “It is unlikely that significantly adverse effects on the individual and their relationships would be an acceptable balance of compromise for anyone, especially family, even if there was a whopping life insurance policy, or lots of cash was being brought home as reward.”
“In my experience, long hours lead to fatigue. This fatigue in turn leads to a lower attention to detail, and lower motivation to excel when mental and physical reserves are low. Quality of output and rate of production reduce.”
A significant step for the employee is to realise that there is too much work, and/or work for which they haven’t been adequality prepared and supported. It can be difficult though, because people may not have time for introspection. It can also be difficult to avoid overly harsh judgements.
The way a senior manager is approached by an employee could be tailored to suit the individuals, organisational culture and team goals. For example:
  • Seek advice from friends who won’t compromise your plan. 
  • Consider the risks of things going badly. What might happen? How might this impact? Are these long or short-term consequences, important or minor? 
  • Once risks are identified, how can they be mitigated? How can the likelihood and seriousness of the impact be limited?
  • Consider legal standing and current practise elsewhere. 
  • Plan a campaign accordingly.
The most appealing option might be a new role, inside or outside the organisation, so the “No” might come as a resignation or transfer letter. This takes courage but hopefully there will be a game plan in place.
you will probably need a manager to reallocate work accordingly
If an immediate jump to another role isn’t viable or desirable, you will probably need a manager to reallocate work accordingly. This may be immediate or through a gradual decline by limiting the allocation of new tasks. It may be sensible to assume some possible outcomes, for example:
  • The manager appreciates the problem and work is distributed across other team members. There may be some adverse impact as a result (rightly or wrongly), like a line in an annual report, or a slower promotion, or a reduced bonus, but this might be acceptable as the necessary trade-off.
  • The manager can’t help, the work needs to be done, and there is no one else to do the work.
If no help is forthcoming, it might arise from personality conflicts (in which case a new job might be the best option). Alternatively, there might be too few people, insufficient capital for new hires, or the business may have bitten off more than it can handle.
“Ok, so I have more jobs than I can reasonably undertake while giving all of them my full attention. Which ones would you like me to focus on?”
If the excessive workload cannot be reduced, a fall-back plan can be useful. A solution can be to ask the manager “Ok, so I have more jobs than I can reasonably undertake while giving all of them my full attention. Which ones would you like me to focus on?” This offers room to negotiate and to identify tasks which are no longer required. If some of the roles are suitable for outsourcing, or for more junior staff, then it might be worth proposing that these jobs are done by others. If the role is looking precarious as a result, it may be that the role isn’t really working for the organisation, and perhaps a controlled departure should be planned before the role becomes redundant.

What can the employing manager do when faced with “No”?

Having an employee turn around and say “No, I can’t take on any more work” may come as a disappointing surprise. A manager may have predicted this conversation, and thus provide a considered response immediately (although in this case, why haven’t they utilised their management and leadership skills, and respectfully broached the subject over a brew which they’ve made for the employee?). A sound approach may be to hold fire, have a brew while discussing the issues with them, then mull over options both in isolation and with peers and mentors. Then commit to a plan.
managers need to take time to think things through before committing to a solution
Managers may find it beneficial to consider the organisational culture. Is a high burn-out and churn rate acceptable? If so, do employees understand this? Did they buy into it in principle, and is this reflected in contracted terms? If this culture is part of the business model, then process, expectations and culture need to be managed accordingly. It can be counter-productive to espouse the existence of a family atmosphere and a good work-life balance (perhaps in exchange for a lower salary or more flexibility than competing employers offer), yet then require staff to work hours significantly over their contracted hours and/or reasonable expectations.
Managers may consider three things to start with:
  • For the employee to overcome their fear and broach the matter with their manager, they have probably been struggling for a while, and there is some intolerable impact on their lives. This demands some sense of respect – they have had the courage to talk to you about a difficult matter.
  • A controlled, calm, respectful discussion about how things might be done differently can be helpful for both sides. If the meeting may be challenging, an impartial third party could be asked into the room.
  • The individual may just be airing grievances to feel better, or they may be fundamentally unsuited to the team. There may however be justifiable issues which need addressing at individual or team level, perhaps implying legal action, reputational risk, or the risk of failing to achieve the team’s goals and objectives. Managers should seek to consider the problem, then manage and lead people to a better situation.
This kind of discussion requires self-control and awareness, to limit the likelihood of getting offended or angry. It may be unwise to commit to specific actions in a first meeting in case they aren’t viable. At the very least, a few private minutes could be taken to mull over the issue before deciding on a response.
Create a plan based on sensible consideration of risks, requirements, courses of action, and how team objectives may be affected. Outcomes should ideally be recorded in an auditable way (for example, the manager could email the employee with their recollection of the meeting, and offer an opportunity for a reply). Rob Hart suggests that “Discretion is vital to maintain dignity, process and a future working relationship.” The matter should not be made public throughout the team. If other people need to be included in a solution, they need to be trustworthy, and know that it must not be communicated to the team (other than as part of a response plan, agreed with the employee).
“Discretion is vital to maintain dignity, process and a future working relationship.”
If a commitment is made, the manager needs do it, lest they be seen as a hollow shell of a manager with no leadership skills and a questionable level of integrity and commitment.
Hopefully, a culture can be created in which an employee and a manager can reasonably discuss issues surrounding excessive workload, whether perceived or real, from both perspectives. This culture would permit reasonable questioning and discussion, without the risk of unfair consequences, and identify lessons to learn for the good of all.
Rob Hart, of Manage and Thrive Training, concludes this article with the following suggestion: 
“If someone needs to say “No” to a manager about undertaking further tasks, this takes courage for the person presenting the issue, and for the manager on the receiving end. Respect each others’ position, and seek to find an agreeable way ahead which is at least tolerable. If in doubt, seek guidance from a coach, mentor, friend or colleague. Consider seeking professional help as appropriate.”

Get in touch now to engage your business support.

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Rob Hart, of Manage and Thrive Training, says “In my experience, very few people want to say “No” to their manager. Very few managers want to hear their staff say “No” when allocated new work.” Read on to learn more about this difficult but sometimes necessary issue…
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