How To Say No!

The “work contract” philosophy

In the working environment one of the hardest words to say is, “no”. In fact, we usually shy away from ever saying “no” outright. It is seen as insubordinate and unhelpful, not being a team player.  However, there are times when you do have to refuse work and how this is done is a learnt skill, not something that comes naturally to most people. This is because usually you are being asked to do something by a manager or senior team member and to refuse is seen as a challenge to their authority.

We are taught not to challenge

It is instilled in us from our school days that we have no right of appeal.  The whole ethos of school is built around coercing us into conforming to a demand and response ethic. Without this, school would probably not work but it has a lasting psychological effect that carries over into our working life.  We have been conditioned to respond when asked to do a job, piece of work, homework, etc that we must do it and we must complete it in the time period allotted to us. There is no discussion.  The implicit agreement is to achieve a given deadline. We don’t object when asked to undertake a task because we have learnt that it has little or no chance of being successful. We allow work to build and our stress levels to rise. Knowing you have an impossible deadline immediately creates stress and feeling of loss of control. What then happens is the individual feels pressured into working extra time either in the office or home to complete the task. This builds resentment in the employee who subconsciously knows they are being exploited.

The collaborative workplace

The situation described above is not the way to create a collaborative working environment. To engage collaboratively we have to change working practice and get everybody to understand how the workplace is going to work.  Managers can be unaware that their approach is causing friction and increased workload for their team. Although, I’d argue that a good manager should be aware of workloads and the feasibility of deadlines for work requested.

Misinterpretation and non-communication

Quite often a manager doesn’t really know what they are requesting. They have a vague idea that has usually come from another request. This is where misinterpretation starts to raise its ugly head and where collaborative working surpasses the traditional method.

At this point we have a classic office situation, request from a manager, interpreted by a junior who delivers but not exactly what the manager thinks they have requested, resulting in dissatisfaction on both sides. Nobody wants to produce a “bad” piece of work and no manager wants somebody to labour on a job that doesn’t produce the required output. It’s wasted energy by all.

Managing the work contract

So how can negative situations be avoided? Well one way is having the tools at hand to manage the situation and ensure everybody understands exactly what they are going to do and what they are going to get. Let us call this the “work contract”. All contracts are decided by negotiation, although this sounds longwinded and at the outset may take a little longer, our aim is to deliver the work required and do that in an agreed time frame. How does this work?

Using the toolbox

Well, as the recipient of the work you need a toolbox that allows you to express that you need more information. You need to be able to this without appearing to be insubordinate or refusing to undertake the task.  The toolbox is a set of questions that will illicit more detailed requirements and allow an estimate of how long this request will take to fulfil.

An example of the type of opening questions could be: “Can you….”

  1. Help me understand what is being requested…?
  2. Take some time to give me the full details of the request…?
  3. Explain how this information is going to be used and where…?
  4. Tell me if this has been produced before and if so by whom….?

Let me know when you want to conduct a review of this output…?

Negotiating the contract

Each of these statements and many more that can be used to open a discussion about creating a detailed understanding of the requirements. It also serves to show just how much the requestor actually knows about the request. At this point, without even thinking of the word, “no” you can find that the manager has to revert back and redefine the request before being able to leave the request for completion.

You are the expert

Together you are able to define the request. You should then be able to agree an estimate of the time needed to produce the output. It is very important to remember that you are being asked to do this work because you are the expert. If the requestor could do this themselves or knew another source, then they would probably go there first. Your estimate is the best they are going to get. It has to be realistic and should be created with the manager, explaining what has to be done and what the output should be.

Working the “Work Contract”

Having established an agreed set of requirements and a delivery timetable, the piece of work can be undertaken. You have now entered into a “work contract” with the manager. You will deliver a set piece of work in a defined format to the manager at an arranged time. Like all contracts it is binding and you have to deliver to it. If for some unexpected reason you find you are unable to deliver, then you must at the earliest opportunity make the manager aware of the slippage in delivery and reschedule. You cannot wait until 5 minutes before delivery time and say, “sorry we don’t have it”.  That is a breach of contract and undoubtedly a loss of faith in your ability to deliver.

The collaborative workspace

The contract is an important building block in the collaborative workspace. It is how we build trust and commitment. This understanding allows teams to deliver synergy of output, releasing managers from an overseer role.

It also allows the producer of the output to take ownership of the task and to show their ability and expertise in providing the required data in the correct format at the right time.

The “work contract” philosophy has to be understood throughout the organisation and it has to be implemented and operated by all to be effective.  When this is done the benefits to the organisation can be great.  Throughout the organisation a greater understanding of process and business requirements is created. Misinterpretation and misunderstanding are eliminated and with luck errors and mistakes are reduced. Added to this is a more motivated and satisfied workforce.

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