The Art of Saying “No”

December 17, 2018
Today’s topic is something that always gets me to the edge of the ledge! You know, that ledge where one more thing or one more conversation is going to make me respond in a way that is authentic but likely not workplace appropriate.  That topic is the workplace assumption that I own processes, programs, and responsibilities that I do not own.



In any organization—and in life—people will let you do as much as you agree to take on. You teach others how you work and how to treat you. (We’ll talk about that a little more in another episode.)

How many times have you been asked to do something that was clearly out of your scope? Did you do it? What happened the next time the same issue arose? And the next? And the next? At some point you became the go-to person for that issue, project, program.  And thinking back on it, you are irritated. And you did it to yourself—which makes you even more irritated!

Do you see how close you are getting to that ledge? Let’s talk about how to get away from there, get your stuff back and eliminate everyone else’s.

In the past, one of the “laurelisms™” my team always teased me about was my saying, “We don’t OWN that.” I meant it.  For example, in HR it is easy to become the dumping ground for all the stuff no one else wants to do. Managers don’t want to have difficult conversations, so they get an HR person to do it. Managers want engaged employees since all the data says engaged employees are more productive, so they tell the HR department to “fix” engagement.  Employees are leaving so leaders tell HR to “fix” retention. Organizations want to be diverse, so HR owns D&I.  And I’m using HR because it’s easy.  Everyone understands or thinks they understand what HR does—the necessary evil.

However, here is the reality that brings this home. When one is consistently asked to do, fix, design, implement whatever the “it” is, then those who actually have ownership of execution and implementation don’t have any skin in the game. Their responsibility is eliminated, putting the ball squarely in your court. If you don’t want to become the Owner of everything that everyone else doesn’t want to do, then you must set boundaries.  Think of it as basic “scope management” in the world of project management. 

Carrying the example to the next step: What does, or should, HR really OWN? HR owns enabling an organization to effectively source, retain, develop and manage (manage including things like strategic compensation and benefits decisions) real people analytics that give insight into the gap between the current and desired state of the organization. HR does not own difficult conversations. HR owns enabling managers with the tools and skills to have those conversations in a constructive manner. HR does not own culture and engagement. HR is the expert in the areas of how to engage, identifying behaviors that are contrary to the desired culture. Moreover, HR owns the “consultative” process of helping an organization figure out how to then address their concerns. Inclusion is clearly in the realm of managers and employees alike, not HR.

The organization wants HR to own all “people” issues, when in reality, people spend the majority of their time with everyone other than HR.  You can have the best sourcing and onboarding processes in the world, but if the manager, team, and department are not welcoming, engaging, and supportive, the employees will not stay. Therefore, does HR own retention or does the organization? Words matter—HR’s ownership is of retention strategies. Execution is completely on the organization.

So, what do you do to come back from that ownership ledge? Ask yourself the following questions: 

Are you aware of when when you are overloaded? Examine your average day.

  • What are you working on?
  • What kinds of calls/requests do you get?
  • Are you having trouble meetng deadlines because you have so many things on your plate?

Is the extra task ok to take on?

  • What is/are the extra thing(s) on your plate?
  • Does it make sense for you to be involved at all?
  • What do you gain? Development, exposure, experience?
  • Is this responsibility something that you actually do own, but just don’t want? ☺

Who is asking?

  • Is this a supervisor? Do you have the opportunity to ask how the new task fits into the overall scope?
  • Is this a colleague? If so…
    • Is this just temporary help?
    • Is this a big project coming up, and you’ve been nominated to participate?
    • Is this the “dog” project that no one wants? What are the risks?

Finally, Is this the first/only time you’ve been asked? 

Based on those questions, if it appears you have inadvertently “received” additional assignments outside of your normal scope, then it’s time to redirect or be direct: 

  • “Wow, I’m swamped, but I may have a couple of hours to help you. Tell me the priority of the [assignment/project/process] and I’ll do that if it will help.”
  • “Let me make sure I understand exactly what you are needing.” Then actively listen, repeating things to show your understanding. “Ok, now that I understand, I’m not the best person to help with that. Let me see if I can get you to the right person.”
  • “I am more than happy to be a sounding board and give guidance, but this seems like something that would be better executed by [you/your team/your department] to ensure a credible and effective outcome.”

Any variation of the above is acceptable, depending on the person you are talking to as well as the situation at hand.  

If you have already been working on a project, and are not in a reasonable position to continue, that is a different conversation:

  • “Somehow this assignment wound up on my plate, but it is really better suited for XXX. I’m happy to have someone shadow/partner with me this time to turnover, but we really need to get this back where it belongs. 

The key is you have not uttered the words “not my job.” And you have left yourself room to “help” or “assist” without accepting ownership of the thing in question. 

Now, I want to be careful about absolutes. Very few things are clearly delineated. Here, we are talking about boundaries that enable effective time, energy and resource management.  There is a difference between volunteering to help out on a project, owning a program temporarily, and becoming the ultimate owner. Even becoming a go-to expert is not all bad, if it makes sense for you and the organization. Regardless, that should, if at all possible, be an active decision on your part. And if that isn’t possible, it is important to be aware and recognize where the process is going—preparing for all potential unintended consequences.

Remember—Own your OWN stuff and NOT everyone else’s! You’ve got plenty to do already…

And that’s The Rutledge Perspective™. What say you? 

#therutledgeperspective    #welcometomyvillage

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