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The Office Life Blog: Why we need to stop saying yes

Laura Johnson

For this week's Office Life blog, Laura Johnson talks about how to tackle the fake yes

She’s got such a can-do attitude. He always goes the extra mile. She’s my go to girl when I need someone to step in and save the day. We gush about team members and co-workers who have a Pavlovian response to say ‘yes’ to almost any request, but should we be giving more respect to those who demonstrate an ability to say a worthy ‘no’?

We’ve all been in situations where we’ve said ‘yes’ when every fibre of our being knows that the right answer is ‘no’. Let me jog your memory. It all starts roughly after your afternoon tea break at 4pm, when you glance across the office mid Hobnob and spot a colleague sheepishly sloping in your direction. Their face is already contorted into a look that oozes just the right amount of pathetic-ness. Even from a distance. Their first move will always be to enquire about your wellbeing. After feigning interest in your reply for a maximum of 10 seconds, they’ll offer up the obligatory line – “is this a good time to talk?” – to which you naturally say your first ‘yes’ even though it’s actually rather inconvenient. Buoyed up by the achievement of getting one ‘yes’ from you under their belt, they move confidently onto delivering their killer request, ramping up the pathetic face in preparation. The plea for help usually involves you doing something that requires at least half a day of your time but to be on their desk by first thing the next morning. Of course, you say ‘yes’. In fact you probably add a completely unnecessary, “not a problem,” in an attempt to convince them just how ‘genuinely’ willing you are. This is what I’m calling the fake yes.

Perpetual people pleasing is an office epidemic. We moan about our bosses and snigger about our colleagues’ inadequacies from time to time, but deep down most office workers are jolly nice folk. We’re predisposed to endure personal sacrifice to avoid confrontation and empathetic enough to go out of our way to lend a hand to help a colleague in need. Even if it means working late, skipping the gym (again) and missing dinner time with our offspring. And this is all down to our persistent overuse of the fake yes.

As young whipper snappers climbing the career ladder, we explain our susceptibility to use the fake yes as a necessary evil of securing every promotion. We justify the personal anguish it causes ourselves and our nearest and dearest with unconvincing promises that it won’t be forever. Then, before we know it, we’ve reached the dizzy heights of leadership and are still trapped in the fake yes cycle as we flail under the pressure to demonstrate those haloed management traits of ‘taking ownership’ and fixing every problem. Now I’m not saying such positivity is a bad thing, but sometimes a little act of selfishness could be just what the doctor ordered.

Why? Because saying a fake yes doesn't make us feel happy. In fact, continuously forcing out false positivity makes us feel taken advantage of, walked all over and down right fed up. It stops us focusing on our genuine priorities, makes us rank the needs of work acquaintances above those of our loved ones and is a major cause of heavy workload, over-stuffed diaries, feelings of being out of control and long hours – some of the biggest symptoms of dissatisfaction at work. Yes, there’s nothing more guaranteed to send our cortisol levels soaring than overuse of the fake yes. And in times where the research bods are increasingly correlating happiness at work with productivity, a mood-zapping fake yes culture is not good for the company balance sheet.

It makes sense to stamp out the fake yes, but as with any change in company values, the revolution has to start from the top. With you. Being a leader, you can probably spot a fake yes easily. So rather than turn a blind eye, take action. This is not just about embracing negativity (although coaching your team on the proper and appropriate use of the two letter alternative definitely has its merits) but instead adapting your management style to enable your people to switch their usage of the fake yes for a genuine one. This takes a leadership commitment to being open, tackling any perceived feelings of injustice this may unearth and maybe helping fake yes-ers to better organise and prioritise their workload in order for them to embrace opportunities with real positivity. Let’s make it our mission to make every yes a genuine one, starting now. Are you in?

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