Our brains automatically hear ‘no’ as a negative or a barrier to progress instead of seeing the power in this small and mighty word when used intentionally and in the right context.
And yet overwhelm and burnout are growing problems for organisations. The recent report by Headspace found that 45% of CEOs and 36% of HR leaders cited being overwhelmed by expectations to take on more and more job responsibilities as the main driver of dread for them at work.
Reprogramming our brains to see ‘no’ as a word that can fuel better decision making and performance empowers people to do more with less, increasing their sense of control, impact and effectiveness.
By using this simple three-step ABC framework, developed from the research behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we can reframe saying ‘no’ and start to create new habits.
Three steps to assess current habits
First, work back to understand why you are stuck in your current habits:
Reprogramming our brains to see ‘no’ as a word that can fuel better decision making and performance empowers people to do more with less, increasing their sense of control, impact and effectiveness
Step 1 – Current experience
What impact is saying ‘yes’ too often having on you? On people you work with? On your friends and family?
There are probably some really positive things that feel great – people see you as a ‘can do’ person, highly productive, getting things done and reliable.
You may be getting a great sense of achievement from delivering to deadlines, spinning multiple plates and solving problems – we know how good the dopamine feels when we complete our to-do list.
There are also likely to be some negative impacts. You never get to the important but non-urgent things on your list. You may feel tired, grumpy, stressed, resentful and even burned-out. Your family doesn’t get the quality time they’d like with you. Your team, if you’re a leader, feels overwhelmed with a change agenda that’s too big to deliver.
Step 2 – Behaviour
What exactly are you doing or saying that’s creating this experience? To whom and when?
You might find it easier to say ‘no’ to some people than others – typically people you have a great relationship with and who you trust not to judge you if you negotiate priorities or deadlines.
But it’s harder with stakeholders who you’re trying to please, who you feel uncertain around or who you’ve had a bad experience within the past.
Maybe you find yourself saying ‘yes’ when you’re rushed or caught off-guard in a meeting.
You might find it easier to say ‘no’ to some people than others – typically people you have a great relationship with and who you trust not to judge you if you negotiate priorities or deadlines
Step 3 – Attitude
Now for the juicy but potentially tricky bit: the key to unlocking new habits and a new experience. What unconscious mindset is driving you to behave in the ways you’ve identified?
Our drivers for saying ‘yes’ more than we should are often deeply rooted in beliefs, values, and assumptions that we have built through our lives.
The need for social approval is a natural driver for human beings when wanting to be accepted into a group and feel we belong.
We are not conscious of these drivers day-to-day, and they only rise to the surface when we stop, reflect, and check ourselves (and each other) out. Be entirely honest with yourself. For example:
- ‘People will think badly of me if I say ‘no’’
- ‘I won’t progress my career if I say ‘no’ – they’ll think I’m not committed or can’t cope’
- ‘I’ll miss out if I don’t get involved’
- ‘People will like me if I say ‘yes’’
Running through these steps together in a team creates an openness and sense of mutual support.
People realise that everyone has similar ‘soundtracks’ in their heads, worry about similar things and it raises the team’s awareness of what is perpetuating unhelpful ways of working.
Three steps to build better habits
Once you’ve got a good insight into the current situation, use the steps again to establish new, more successful habits.
Our drivers for saying ‘yes’ more than we should are often deeply rooted in beliefs, values, and assumptions that we have built through our lives
Step 1 – Change
What would great look like? What impact do you want to have? What experience do you want?
This might include being more focused, productive and efficient. Having the maximum impact with the time and resources you have.
It may include how you want to be perceived – a strong decision-maker, unafraid to make difficult choices. Someone who is honest and transparent about capacity and what’s achievable.
Step 2 – Behaviour
What will you start doing and saying to achieve this change?
In reality you’re unlikely to start flatly saying ‘no’ to people as they ask you to do something. Think through what feels genuine and feasible to say instead, for example:
- ‘I might be able to – let me reflect and I’ll come back to you by X’
- ‘We are prioritising X this week – let me see if we should re-prioritise and I’ll come back to you by X’
- ‘I can’t do it right now – when’s the latest you need this by?’
Changing our beliefs doesn’t happen overnight but with repetition we start to let go of the old, unhelpful beliefs and adopt new ones
Step 3 – Attitude
Now this is the clincher. How can you reframe your current beliefs to drive new behaviour and change your experience?
This is the fundamental step at the heart of changing habits as it drives your behaviour and the results you get.
Changing our beliefs doesn’t happen overnight but with repetition we start to let go of the old, unhelpful beliefs and adopt new ones. Once we get a few early wins, it becomes easier to embed them and do them unconsciously. For example:
- Reframe ‘People will think badly of me if I say ‘no’’ as ‘People will respect my ability to prioritise’
- Reframe ‘I’ll miss out if I don’t get involved’ as ‘I don’t have time to get involved in everything without feeling overwhelmed’
- Reframe ‘Being conscientious is important to me, so I must say yes’ as ‘I will do higher quality work if i prioritise’
Overwhelm and burnout are common challenges in organisations today and with limited time and resources, healthy habits around saying ‘no’ can have a significant impact on the results teams achieve and the experience people have of work.
Of course, there may be deeper rooted, wider cultural blockers to new habits taking hold.
If this is the case, take a deeper look at the unwritten rules in your organisation and how they might be helping or hindering people saying ‘no’ when they should.
If you enjoyed this, read: Sustaining employees’ mental wellbeing