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Use your superpower – say NO

Sign saying learn to say no

Last week, Matthew Sherrington wrote that managers and leaders are gaslighting their staff in the charity and not-for-profit sector by creating toxic work cultures (see Matthew’s blog here). The drive to do more, more, more – and yet never doing enough can be overwhelming as demand for services and support is endless. This is then compounded with messaging around the need for staff wellness and resilience in the face of such pressure, which leaves staff feeling like they are underachieving failures. We too have seen this time and time again on our management development programmes, and absolutely agree with Matthew. The solution lies in effective prioritising. Prioritising needs to happen at every level, and in every part, of the organisation. Charities and non-profits are facing even more challenging times, and will need to follow in the public sectors’ footsteps of doing more for less. And ultimately, this means doing things differently – not overloading people even more.

countryside view with blue sky

Reading Matthew’s excellent blog reminded me of a particular manager I have been coaching. Let’s call her Alice. Alice is a senior manager, in a fundraising role. The organisation has a brave new strategy – hugely ambitious and far reaching. Alice feels the weight of her organisation’s mission. She knows the organisation has the expertise to do great things, if only they had the resources. The fundraising team that she manages need to garner support, awareness and heaps of unrestricted cash. The pressure on this manager is mounting.

Alice cares about the cause, wants to do a good job, and cares even more deeply about her team. What this translates into however is an unhealthy work culture within her team, and her own life. She works every hour she can, and sleeps less than she should. When she flags to her own manager the strain is too much, she gets bags of empathy but not much else.  She refuses to put her own team under the same pressure, and instead takes it all on herself. Which of course they see – from the 2am emails to the ‘us and them’ talk. The team is learning that being a great manager means being a superhero who endures and suffers so that others don’t have to.

Recognising this is not healthy, and not right, I began coaching her and we looked at the problem in several ways: grow the team (spend more to get more), prioritise efforts and focus on high payoffs, or let some projects wait or drop off the list.

In other words: get more people, get longer deadlines or do less things.

Alice pushed back at me at every step. She didn’t want her team (and herself) to be seen as a failure. She felt that there needed to be a better, more magical solution. By not making the magic happen, she felt that she was being a bad manager. By extension, the narrative she kept telling herself was she would be letting the organisation down if she didn’t just suck it up and do it all. Herself. In the evenings and at weekends. She even confided she thought she would be told she was rubbish and be put on performance measures, ultimately getting the sack.

So what happened to Alice? Well, there was a pandemic. Which was game changing. Suddenly, prioritising, focussing, and saying no was no longer just an option but actually was now the only way forward. Alice was forced to stop some activities, was forced to work less hours as she now had home-schooling to contend with (both for herself and most of the team too), and was forced to choose between outcomes. Focus on Project A or Project B because doing both just isn’t do-able. With just a little bit more coaching she started to make hard choices. And felt ok about it. She learned her superpower: she said No. And nobody got fired.

But the truth is, you don’t need a pandemic to say no. And it is easier than you think. You just need to set yourself up with the power. Here are four practical steps you can take:

1. Be strategic

Connect your everyday work to your strategy. Every action you take, or task you work on, should connect to the strategic outcomes your organisation is aiming for. Map it out. Then prioritise those actions: which matter the most? Which will have the most impact? If you can’t connect the task to an outcome, just stop doing it and see if anyone notices.

2. Contract

Gain agreement from your own boss that your priority list is the ‘right’ list. Show them your thinking, and ask: do we agree that my team need to deliver these outcomes? And if that isn’t possible, if we have to choose between Project A and Project B, can we agree which has the most impact? By presenting your priorities in terms of impact, rather than a list of tasks or budget lines, you are more likely to gain support.

3. Stick to the line

Once you have it in place, you need to hold others to account and make sure you keep to the agreement too. When new ideas, projects or tasks come your way ask: does this have more impact than the things we had already planned to do? If so, great. What do I need to stop doing to make room for it? Don’t just add more.

4. Get comfortable with imperfection

Accept you will have to let some things drop, stop, or wait. Your job as a manager is to be OK with that, and to be a role model for your team. You may need to reverse your narrative of failure: getting everything done at the expense of the wellbeing of your team is failure. Not getting everything done, but doing the right things with a happy and well team is success.

By focussing on outcomes, having clear agreements, being tenacious and living with imperfection you can build your power to say no.

Huge thanks to Matthew for starting this conversation, and to Alice for recognising her power. If you need more tips on how to say no, check out this video: For every yes there is a no.

Or this blog that helps you learn how to say no in five different ways.

To learn more ways of managing your time and priorities, visit the Managing Multiple Priorities training programme page.

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Laura Slater

About Laura Slater

Laura specialises in project governance and management, as well as leadership and management development. Laura has 8 years’ experience in the charity sector, in particular developing and delivering regional...