The danger of saying yes:

How doing it all minimizes your leadership


Published on: November 2018

Written by: Jacqueline Brodnitzki

The executives we work with are depended upon to move mountains. Many high-stakes mandates end up on their desk as well as a host of other initiatives. Great leaders are always asked to do more. Internal drive, pressure to meet others’ expectations, and even a desire to be liked can lead to an impulse to say yes. It feels good to be the leader who can get it all done, and to be trusted and valued.

Yet, when discussing this tendency, one VP recently told me, “I realize it’s selfish to keep saying yes.”

When executives take it all on, it’s impossible to do everything well and to place sufficient focus on the right priorities. It’s hard to have the stamina to accomplish what’s really important.

Similarly, when organizations take on too many priorities, it’s impossible to make progress on key strategies because putting out fires and tackling the day-to-day demands, often end up taking precedence.

So why is the first response so often yes for so many leaders? Some report it feels good to be a team player. Many find that saying yes is easier than saying no or that saying no will limit their likeability or even promotability to that top position. All these reasons, it turns out, are selfish in nature. They relate to personal status or approval rather than making sound business decisions.

Saying yes to everything has negative implications to the organization, to its ability to execute on top business goals and to your leadership. Here’s how:

Downside #1: Revenue Declines

This HBR article titled, Stop Chasing Too Many Priorities, reveals a correlation between the length of an organization’s priority list and a decline in revenue growth, while shorter, more focused priority lists of often 1-3 key items, lead to greater revenue growth. We see this play out with our clients’ companies’ too: the more focused the organizational strategies, the healthier the businesses.

Downside #2: You Create an Unfocused Organization

When there are too many priorities, the attention of leaders and their teams is scattered and unfocused. Nothing gets done well, and often the wrong things get done first. We’re often called in to work with organizations because they haven’t made progress on their key strategic initiatives. In many cases it’s because the organization is burdened with too many priorities. Once leadership teams make hard decisions and streamline focus, strategies begin to progress throughout the organization.

Downside #3: Your Leadership Suffers

It’s impossible to successfully lead an organization when you take it all on. You end up running from meeting to meeting, feeling overwhelmed, and frustrating those who rely on you. You don’t do anything well and you’re so busy that you’re unable to give your attention to those who need you. You appear frazzled and out of control. People begin to think they can’t trust you and your confidence can take a big hit. Before you know it you’re in a downward spiral and it’s tough to change your trajectory.

What to do:

  • Seek first to understand. By asking questions to better understand underlying requests, you’ll gain a better understanding of the request and often help the requestor gain clarity themselves. Invariably, this creates options that change the nature of the request to eliminate your involvement, make it clear someone else would be the best choice, or eliminate the need altogether by finding a new solution.
  • Change your default. My client changed her default answer from yes to ‘let me think about it’ and everyone around her noticed. They saw a frazzled, emotional leader who missed deadlines turn into a calm, thoughtful and dependable leader.
  • Create discipline. Continuously hone your discipline of saying yes to ensure that only new ideas/requests that are in alignment with the top strategy of the company are undertaken. Without that rigor, that streamlined priority list will triple in size, and before you know it, you and the organization will find yourselves focused on all the wrong things. Leaders at all levels of the organization must constantly question alignment – both to those below them and to those above them, whether it’s the C-Suite, CEO or Board.

Recently a VP of a national insurance company said to me, “I used to say yes to everything and now I only say yes to what’s important. I’m now focused on what really matters and I’m a better leader as a result.” It is game changing for leaders and their organizations when they pause and create the discipline to understand whether new initiatives fit with top priorities before agreeing to move forward.  When everyone knows what matters to move the needle, it creates calm and focus and more success—for you, for your team, and for the organization.

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