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Saying No: towards happy & healthy organizations

Recently I experienced the benefits of consciously and regularly saying 'no'. After the summer vacation, to get back into shape, I had started to say no to alcohol for a while. Since I’ve always been sceptic about diets and don't like being rigid about daily routines, this whole experience was new to me.

A few weeks later something happened which at first seemed unrelated. I was asked to be a part-time internal coach in an organization where professionals and clients were striving to have meaningful conversations. This was to replace a great deal of ineffective, online communication. Normally that would be music to my ears. Goal and purpose resonated; clearly this was for me. In this case though, the way of working wasn't at all in tune with the desired outcome. Ironically, measurement instruments, online forms and loads of emails between different parties distracted me from having the desired face-to-face interactions. After some serious thought, I resigned from the project.

Even though I lost months of business with this decision, it felt good and newish..yet slightly familiar. And it hit me: by saying 'no' to alcohol for a while, I had trained my brain on a small day-to-day basis to become more aware of the possibility of saying 'no'. The question 'it seems attractive, but do I really, really want this now and more importantly: is it good for me in the long run' applied here just as much as with the refusal of a glass of wine.

What does this all mean for business and leadership?

1. Get rid of useless, addictive patterns

Breaking a habit once in a while, even temporarily, helps to make more conscious decisions. One of my own patterns was to ‘go with the flow’ and say yes to most of the work coming my way. Beliefs such as ‘I should be grateful when someone asks me’ kept feeding my behaviour. There’s nothing wrong with a pattern in itself. It’s just: I hadn’t noticed it and my reactions were more automatic. This means I would even say ‘yes’ if it wasn’t good for me.

A colleague in the field, Tjip de Jong, was doing research for his book last summer [1] and interviewed me about the addictiveness of certain patterns in organizations. We are full of them: continuously starting new projects, creating more and more paperwork, redefining functions or sending out numerous emails. What beliefs lie behind those actions? And what if people in organizations would stop these automatic behaviours for a while, just to see what would happen?

2. Enable clarity and focus

During strategy dialogues in organizations it often strikes me how hard it is for companies to identify activities they will no longer undertake. Entire management teams can’t bring themselves to say ‘no’ to certain choices made earlier. A school wants to welcome all type of students. A communication office can’t choose for a certain niche.

More than exploring new fields, the challenge is often to, metaphorically speaking, ‘close a door’ and prioritize. Distractions cost a lot of energy. Think of all the opportunities when customers can finally recognize a clear profile or employees all know the chosen path for the coming period.

3. Make room for new opportunities

My choices are already paying off. Nothing is stronger than showing your beliefs with actions. I get compliments from people about the courage to stand for what I believe. I was asked to join another project because of it. I haven’t decided yet, but with the extra room in my calendar, I might say yes. I sure have the energy for it plus I get to do what I’m good at!

This parallel with the benefits for business might not even need extra explaining. So on a last note. Is saying ‘no’ a goal in itself? No :-), surely not. The notion is that happy and healthy leaders and organizations aren’t afraid of stepping back, saying no when fit-for-purpose and manage to do it gracefully.

[1] His book 'Verslaafd aan Organiseren' comes out this fall at Van Duuren Management.

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