Are you a “yes” or “no” person?

In a gross oversimplification of the workplace, there are two kinds of people: those who say “yes” and those whose default response is “no.”

Let’s take a closer look at an account executive at a large public relations firm who says “yes” to everything. Not only is he considered one of the most positive, eager and open people on the planet, he’s also one of the most overworked and stressed. Despite all his effort, his work is inconsistent and he’s disappointing rather than impressing his manager. He is the first person to volunteer to take on a new project or opportunity to learn new skills. But he also says “yes” even when he doesn’t have a moment free in the day, even when he might not be the best person to get the job done and when he doesn’t feel prepared to do the work. “Yep…got it!” But does he really? When would it be better for this account executive to say “no” and how could he say “no” in a way that enhances rather than hinders his reputation?

Managers love a team member who is on top of his work, eager to take on additional responsibility and shows initiative. They welcome the confident individual who says, “Yes, I’d like to do that” followed by either “and I’ll have the work completed by 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday,” or “I have a few questions that I’d like to talk about with you so that I understand your expectations and make sure I approach the task successfully.”  Or “I have some other work due later this week and I want to confirm that I can meet those deadlines and still work on this project.”

Managers also know which of their team members always respond with the same knee-jerk, “Nope.” “Can’t do that.” “No time.” “I’m far too busy.” Or worse, “That’s not something I do…”

What about those times when a team member is genuinely swamped and the manager isn’t really asking for a “yes” or “no” rather just insisting something has to get done in what she knows is an unreasonable time frame. “The client really, really, really needs this tomorrow morning” (said apologetically yet firmly). Typically the manager has already agreed to the tight deadline in the spirit of keeping the client happy.

Is the answer to pull another all-niter or is there an alternative to keep the account executive, manager and client happy? Instead of grinning and bearing it, the account executive can do some probing to learn what the client really needs by the deadline looming less than 24 hours away. Perhaps instead of a finished product (completed to the agency’s usual high standards), the account executive could present a well-thought-through outline, or questions for discussion, or samples of work done for other clients to be used as a jumping-off point for the discussion.

The account executive hasn’t exactly said “yes.”  But he hasn’t said “no,” is still being helpful and has proposed a compromise that may make more sense given the time frame. Of course there will always be those times when the tight turn-around isn’t negotiable. But wouldn’t it be great to make those the exception rather than the rule?

As with most things in life, people in the workplace are best-served by striking a balance between the unrealistic eager beaver and the self-obsessed, unhelpful naysayer. You want to be known as the person who is positive, enthusiastic and standing with two feet firmly — and successfully — grounded in reality!

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