Have We Lost the Ability to Say “NO” at Work?

say-no limited timeOne of the biggest challenges in the modern workplace is work overload.  Too much to do, too little time, not enough resources, not enough energy!

Stress management techniques wisely advise that we need to take back our ability to say “no” when we recognize that we cannot do all that is expected of us.

Tell that to your boss and watch what happens.

We humans have limited supplies of time and energy.  When we have exhausted these reserves, then our interest in related projects also eventually depletes.  We may know this intuitively, but the modern workplace practically demands that we ignore our human limitations and continue to take on more work – or face the consequences.

Throughout my blog posts, I have consistently called for a re-emergence of humanism to find a new (and better) way to work in the modern workplace.  Throughout my career, I have consulted with and coached clients who are frustrated, angry, burned out, and underperforming.  The common thread is the inability, unwillingness, or fear of saying “no.”

Like many of us, I can remember as a young girl that saying “no” to my parents resulted in some form of punishment – or at least “the look” and a very strong reprimand.  Old habits die hard, so I shouldn’t be surprised when we continue to avoid saying “no” in order to avoid displeasing the people in our professional lives.

Although we are not put in “time out” at work, saying “no” to our bosses can lead to some form of direct or indirect reprimand.  Consider what saying “no” to a new assignment can mean to our jobs and careers:

  • We are not viewed as “team players.”
  • Our loyalty to the company is questioned.
  • We are being insubordinate to our bosses – which will not be forgotten in our annual performance reviews.
  • We are being “difficult.”

The tragedy is that saying “yes” to others (especially when we don’t really want to) actually undermines our current and future relationships with that person or organization.  In addition, we are much more likely to experience the negative effects of cognitive dissonance:  we are acting in a way that contradicts how we really feel.  This leads to anger, resentment, and burnout.

Why Saying “No” Can Be a Good Thing

Although saying “no” was grounds for punishment as a child, we are no longer children but adults whose contributions are critical in order for our companies to excel.

So how can saying “no” to an assignment actually be a good thing?

  • Saying “no” can indicate a significant lack of resources that will eventually undermine the success of the assignment.
  • Saying “no” can reinforce the need to better delegate the workload or increase staffing (temporarily or permanently).
  • Saying “no” can benefit customers by keeping their expectations realistic and then delivering on those expectations.
  • Saying “no” can protect the company from litigation arising from illegal actions by employees.
  • Saying “no” (and having that “no” accepted by management) can increase employee commitment and engagement because we are being heard and respected.
  • Finally, saying “no” can protect the organization from negative “group think” and open the door to future innovation and creative solutions.

Unfortunately, many companies view an employee’s “no” as a sign of disrespect, insubordination, and grounds for future discipline – including termination.

But the fear of saying “no” ultimately does nothing to support the health of either the organization or the individual worker.  Not standing up for something that you believe is wrong ensures that the unrealistic demands, disrespectful treatment, and stressful workplace will continue – for you and others.

How to Say “No” at Work

Learning to say “no” can be a challenge for many workers – as equally challenging as learning how to accept a subordinate’s “no.”

How do you create an environment in which an employee’s “no” is viewed positively?

First, always consider Mehrabian’s three channels for effective interpersonal communication:  55% of meaning comes from nonverbal cues, 38% from tone of voice, and only 7% from the words themselves.  Be sure that all three are in alignment.  In other words, don’t say “no” using a hostile tone or defensive mannerisms.

Second, provide a brief rationale for your “no.” Be sure to include a logical reason why you are refusing the request and the potential benefit to the person making that request.  For example, be clear that taking on the new assignment will undermine your ability to successfully meet the deadline for another important assignment.

Third, offer another option to get the work done.  This may include recommending that the assignment be divided among several employees who are experts in their individual project areas so that the increased workload does not become unmanageable for any one individual.

Fourth, don’t say “no” late in the game.  If the project’s due date is near and you had previously agreed to the deliverable due dates, don’t “suddenly” announce that you can’t finish it.  Keep all stakeholders apprised of progress and don’t be afraid to ask for help if there is any indication that the due date might not be met.  It is better to modify plans, rather than never complete them.

Saying “no” at work is hard and many of our past experiences have supported our belief that we should never say “no” at work.  But when we can’t say “no,” we feel out of control – which is a primary factor in the debilitating downward spiral toward burnout.

Learning to say “no” can be very empowering.  It can enhance our professional relationships as well as increase the levels of mutual respect.  Most importantly, it can be the first step in creating a new, more humane, and more productive way to work. Saying “no” to one thing can be the first step to saying “yes” to something much better.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

Paradigm Shifter #35: Single-tasking is better than multi-tasking

Paradigm Shift“There’s too much to do!!!  Do more with less!!!  Don’t waste time!!!”  These are caveats by which many of us live our lives.

For greater efficiency and financial profitability, many companies now expect their human resources to be able to multi-task in ways that are comparable to the feats made possible by artificial intelligence.

Instead of harnessing technology, it has instead become our 24/7/365 master.  We tend to expect that we can accomplish multiple tasks not just simultaneously, but also at the speed of our computers and mobile devices.  If not, we think that there must be a problem with us.

But the real problem is that many of us ignore the needs and limitations of being human.  We are not wired like computers.  We are not programmable robots.  And that is ultimately a very good thing.

The drive to not only do more with less but also to do it faster is fertile ground for our misguided attempts at multi-tasking.  The primary issue is that there is often very little consideration of the nature of the tasks themselves when we multi-task:  each task is simply a line item on our ever-increasing “To Do” lists.

Recent studies have shown that interruptions (either by others or self-imposed through the process of multi-tasking) actually interfere with our ability to concentrate and ultimately slow down our progress.  In other words, we actually waste time when we try to do too much because our brains need time to re-group in order to “pick up where we left off.”

Any “time savings” or efficiencies achieved from simultaneously working on tasks that involve critical thinking or creativity are thus undermined by the reduced quality or effectiveness of our completion of each task.

So, if the tasks require critical thinking, creativity, decision making, and/or learning, then we shouldn’t multi-task!

There a few other things that I’ve noticed about multi-tasking:

  • Multi-tasking destroys mindfulness.  We’re not totally “present” in anything that we’re doing because we are trying to simultaneously compartmentalize and control competing thoughts and goals.  The likelihood of breakthrough, “a ha!” moments is severely limited.
  • We overlook some of the most important concepts or aspects of our tasks.  Because we’re not present in the moment (i.e., fully concentrating), we tend to skim over documents or conversations.  Then we berate ourselves for missing the “obvious.”
  • We also miss the important nuances.  Since both the devil and the serendipitous discoveries are found in the details, we lose the opportunity to notice either.
  • Finally, multi-tasking tends to draw out projects beyond the time that they should reasonably take to complete.  We have a false sense of accomplishment because we completed 25% of five different projects even though we haven’t 100% completed any of them!

However, there is one type of multi-tasking that I believe can be very effective.  Multi-tasking via technology works precisely because it isn’t really multi-tasking.  Instead, it is actually a form of technological delegation.  The “grunt work” is done by technology, leaving us free to concentrate, analyze, ponder, and use our creativity to solve higher level, more complex problems.

In my own life, single-tasking actually increases my productivity in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness.  Maybe that’s because I’m fully focused and using all of my resources to get something 100% done.  By saying “yes” to this particular project or task, I can more readily say “no” to other competing interests.

What about you:  is your multi-tasking propelling you toward the goals that you want to achieve OR is it undermining your path to success?

  • Look at your past history.  How effective have you really been when you tried to do too many things at the same time?
  • Which of your key projects have you actually completed?  Did the completed projects meet your expected standards?
  • How many other projects have “fallen through the cracks” because your attention was focused elsewhere?
  • Have any 6-month projects turned into 5-year odysseys?
  • Of the projects that are still partially completed, how much time would it actually take to finally check this project off your “To Do” list?
  • Are you willing to at least try single-tasking and see what happens?

While everybody works differently, it is critical that we understand and appreciate the most conducive environment and tools needed for us to do our best work.  Single-tasking requires prioritizing what is important – then taking the time to focus on completing the task at hand.

Although it’s against the “norm” of our multi-tasking society, maybe it’s time to be a maverick and try single-tasking in order to achieve the goals and success that we really want.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

Fear, Change, and Life-Long Learning


Can we ever stop learning?  Most people would agree that we are constantly learning new things about ourselves, our environment, other people, as well as what works and what doesn’t.

But how many times have you attended a mandatory training session – and been bored to tears?

Or how many times have you been “forced” to learn a new method to complete a task that required you to “forget” everything that you used to do?

In the 25+ years that I have been a trainer, facilitator, and keynote speaker, I have often been surprised that many of the participants really didn’t want to be there.  Some displayed this through a lack of interaction.  Others simply looked down and were absorbed with their smart phones.  Many adopted a “wait and see” attitude as to the value of the information.  Still others were blatantly hostile and combative to any new ideas that were presented.

Sadly, a not large enough percentage approached the training as something enjoyable, informative, and applicable to their daily tasks, duties, and responsibilities.

Of course, it is and always has been my duty and responsibility to engage the audience by answering the fundamental question that underscores all learning:  “WIIFM (or what’s in it for me)?”

Fortunately, I’ve been pretty successful in giving the audience something that they could actually use.  I admit that (thankfully) not all people have been resistant to learning something new.

But I can’t help but wonder what past experiences jaded many attendees to fully embrace new ideas in the form of life-long learning?

In corporations, a large percentage of training is required to meet regulatory compliance (e.g., sexual harssment, ethics, EEO, etc.).  However, much of the other corporate-sponsored training often focuses on building key employee competencies to successfully compete in their markets.

Such “competency-based performance models” are the new rage in business.  “Competencies” indicate a high level of mastery or expertise in key areas of knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors which are then used to create a competitive advantage for the company.  In other words, it’s the stuff that you’re really good at.

But, identifying those competencies is a lot easier said than done.

Whether or not the competencies identified by seniors leaders are actually the “real” core competencies for the company, the corresponding training always focuses on changing the tools, methods, and even reporting relationships that employees use to do their jobs.

How Fear Affects the Passion to Learn

Changing the way that you work is based on a changing organizational foundation.  And that’s scary for most workers.

Perhaps most frightening is “un-learning” things that have led to success in the past.  Can we be just as good at the new way of doing something as we were in doing it the old way?

Another challenge occurs when managers don’t reinfoce the training back in the workplace – particularly if the company follows a “new is always better” approach.  This occurs when company leaders are constantly changing the way that things are done…but without a sound explanation for employees as to why.

Is it any wonder that employees are reluctant to put forth the effort to learn something new when the past has proven that it will just be replaced with something even newer a few months down the road?

Adults are not children and they have very different learning needs than children:

  • Adult learners already have insights, opinions, and assumptions about what works and what doesn’t – so we are less likely to accept new approaches at face value.
  • Adult learners are often subject matter experts in our fields – so we want our opinions to be heard and shared.
  • Finally, adult learners are busy – so if we are going to spend time in training (and not on something else), we want to make sure that we will be able to actually use these insights back on the job.

Change and the Learning Organization

We live in an age of constant, unrelenting change.  In the book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge encouraged companies to embrace life-long learning across all functional and hierarchical levels.  In a world that is constantly changing, the only way to adapt is by being open to learning new ways to approach both new and old problems.

Notice that “learning” corresponds with “change.”  Given the high degree of change resistance in many organizations, it is not surprising that these fears will be most noticeable in employee reactions to training and development.

  • Ego plays an important role in the unwillingness to abandon old beliefs and replace them with something which is currently unknown.
  • Economic realities threaten our feelings of security when we aren’t initially “good” at something new because we fear that we are now “replaceable” in the organization.
  • In today’s time-strapped workplace, there is often an expedited learning curve that just isn’t conducive to learning and then implementing higher level, complex ideas.  It’s just easier to continue to do things the old way.
  • Information overload is a genuine problem affecting worker productivity and organizational performance.  Exhaustion and fatigue coupled with misguided attempts to multitask cause us to shut down to new ideas.  There is simply too much to learn and do.  We are overwhelmed.

Learning inherently questions the status quo in order to create something that is more efficient, effective, and powerful.  This is a double-edged sword for many senior organizational leaders.  An informed workforce is like the child who isn’t afraid to say that the emperor isn’t actually wearing any new clothes:  employees can and will challenge organizational leaders and the decisions that they make.

Moving toward a commitment to life-long learning is therefore a major paradigm shift for both the organization as a whole and the individual workers within it.  But fearing new ideas and stubbornly refusing to at least try them is a prescription for failure in a constantly changing world.

Puleo’s Pointers:  Don’t extinguish the flame

As humans, we are hardwired to want to understand and know more about ourselves and our environments.  Many times we will fail in our first attempts to try something new – but that shouldn’t prevent us from continuing to move forward.  This is perhaps the greatest advice from Senge’s Fifth Discipline:  failure is nothing more than an opportunity to learn.

Once the fire for learning has been lit, we humans tend to continue to stoke the flames:

“Knowledge always desires increase; it is like fire, which must first be kindled by some external agent, but which will afterwards propagate itself.” (Samuel Johnson)

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

What to Do When Someone Else’s Disorganization Creates Your Chaos

I’m a planner; it’s the only way that I can accomplish all my goals without burning out or going a little crazy.  So what do you do when an authority figure gives you wrong information – but then YOU have to change your entire schedule in order to deal with the resulting chaos?  It changes all your priorities by turning important things into important AND urgent crises (thanks, Stephen Covey for these insights).

Well, that’s what happened to me when I was asked to teach a university course.  I was told the class had a standardized curriculum – but there were no quizzes, tests or reports assigned.  Being a planner, I was pulling together my teacher’s guide for the class 3 weeks before it started and noticed these omissions.  I notified the person in charge and was told that everything would be posted a few days before the class start.  Guess what?  They weren’t.

So I was now in a situation where class had started and neither the 25 adult learners nor I knew what the assignments and due dates would be for the course.  Oh, and by the way, there was no repository of questions or assignments from which I could quickly pull the new curriculum.  Needless to say, everything else went on the back burner and I had to focus exclusively on developing the entire course curriculum from scratch as quickly as possible.

So much for managing my schedule to avoid burnout.

Do these types of things happen in business?  Sure, they do.  Are they fair to the person who must scramble to complete a project as the result of someone else’s disorganization?  No, they aren’t.  My question is:  what can be done about it?  Here’s my checklist to prevent these crises from happening in the future.

#1:  Keep your priorities.  Instead of throwing the baby out with the bath water, I looked at which projects were most critical and had the closest due dates.  The other things were rescheduled.  I didn’t want one crisis to snowball into a week full of crises (luckily, it didn’t).

#2:  Check with at least 2 authority figures if something is missing or feels wrong.  Don’t rely on just one answer.  Of course, this can make the original person whom you ask somewhat miffed, but you don’t want to be in a situation that causes additional stress to either you or the people who are depending on you.

#3:  Be a pest.  This follows the previous point – keep asking if your instincts tell you that the answer is wrong.

#4:  Be honest with the people who are depending on you.  I notified my students immediately about the confusion and asked for their patience.  Of course, I also gave them additional time to complete the assignments.  The result was very positive and had somewhat of a bonding effect on a new class.

#5:  Be honest with the people who will be the victims of the trickle down effect resulting from the drain on your time.  Since I’m teaching more than one class, I notified my other students that I would be running behind on correcting their assignments.  Again, the result was positive.  Silence can be deadly.

#6:  Use more than one way to contact the people who are depending on you.  Not only did I post announcements, but I also emailed the entire class to keep them apprised of the progress.  (It took 2 solid weeks to pull together the curriculum.)

#7:  Give at least a portion of the total project to the people who are depending on you – then work diligently to finish the balance as soon as possible.  In this way, my students were able to work on the first few weeks’ assignments and I had a little breathing room to develop the rest of them.

#8:  Take a break.  While I put in a lot of extra, unplanned hours to complete the curriculum, I didn’t kill myself by attempting an all-nighter.  (I can’t do them anymore because I’m a zombie for a few days after and can’t accomplish anything!)  Continuing to push when you’re exhausted creates a shoddy result – which, if you genuinely care about what you do, means you’re going to spend more time re-doing it.

#9:  Don’t get angry.  Concentrate on the light at the end of the tunnel – then celebrate when you’re done.  Being angry just causes more stress and anxiety and is counterproductive.

#10:  Learn the lesson.  Some organizations are notoriously disorganized, while some may have just suffered a temporary glitch.  Figure out which one applies – then keep this in mind for future projects.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

Is There a Link Between Multitasking and Presenteeism?

Ah, the joy and satisfaction of multitasking.  You can do your laundry, watch a TV show, prepare an expense report and brainstorm ideas on new marketing campaigns all at the same time.  What a great way to save time and get more done!

Yeah, right.  The problem is that we’re not robots.

On paper, multitasking is a great idea – you can use the same block of time to complete more than one task or activity.  As a reformed chronic multitasker, I now realize that the only way to effectively multitask is by carefully choosing which tasks can be automated and which ones can’t.

My strategy is to automate the manual, repetitive tasks but not attempt to automate the strategic ones.  By programming technology to complete mundane duties, I’m then freed to focus higher level cognitive and creative abilities – those capabilities that are distinctively human – to complete important, creative or strategic activities.

But that’s not the way we usually multitask.  Chronic multitaskers are frustrated that we can’t program ourselves to complete several tasks at once – regardless of whether their natures are repetitive or strategic.  After all, if computers can do that, then it follows that we (the ones who created the computers) should be able to multitask, too.

But humans aren’t computers, so we physically and psychologically can’t do many things at once.  Well, we can – but often they are not done that well.  Whatever we are doing, part of our attention is diverted to something else, so we’re not directing 100% of our energies and creativity to complete the task at hand.

In other words, multitaskers tend to engage in presenteeism – a phenomenon where even though we are physically in a place, mentally and psychologically we’re really not there.  You know the symptoms:  the uncomfortable pauses or lost lines of thought when you’re talking to an employee about her performance while planning for an upcoming client meeting.

How effective are you in this situation really?  You probably realize that neither task has your full concentration – and lack of concentration leads to repetition and lost opportunities.  The presenteeism that is associated with multitasking leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings.

I’m all for automating routine, repetitive, nonstrategic activities.  But I no longer try to multitask when I’m involved in an important, strategic or creative project.  By single-tasking, I’ve become more efficient because I get things done faster and (more importantly) to a higher standard.

I also engage in serial single-tasking.  I’ll give myself a break at different times on a lengthy assignment by stopping work at an appropriate stopping point, moving on to another task that uses a different type of brain activity, then moving back to the original task.  It’s a great practice that helps build mindfulness, reduce stress and enhance job satisfaction.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

Working Hard, Working Smart and Not Working

We’ve all heard about the importance of working hard and how it manifests into a strong work ethic.  We’ve also been advised to use technology to help us work smart by prioritizing and multitasking our activities.  This focus on work is what creates success.  But we’ve never been told to stop working.

In the American workplace, working long hours is a badge of honor – even though many of us are cranky, burned out and (if we’re honest with ourselves) not really living up to our full potential.  Yet we continue because the Puritan work ethic on which our country was founded persistently pervades our ideas about what it means to be a “good” worker.

Asian spiritualities advise that hard work (or forceful determination) should be balanced with not working (or surrendering) in order to recoup our energies.  Why do we continue to ignore this healthier approach to life and work?

Like many people, even when I wasn’t technically working, I continued to think about work and strategies, clients and marketing, profits and expenses.  Because I never really stopped thinking about work, I never really permitted myself the joy and rejuvenating power of totally letting work go.  Isn’t that what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?

When I was forced into quiet reflection due to the surgeries and recovery for a detached retina, I really started to question the silent but pervasive nagging that success requires a 24/7 commitment to working hard and working smart.  This tunnel vision mislabeled as “focus” was (or so I had been told) the path to success.

I know now that instead this can be the path to dissatisfaction, unhappiness, lack of clarity, and physical and psychological dis-ease.

In response to these insights, I made a concentrated effort to be mindful and present in each moment.

But this commitment was no small task!

I gave up attempts to multitask – not only do I now find it to be rude, but I also believe that it actually reduces efficiency and efficacy.

I’ve also learned to no longer finish a task without a “mini-celebration” (a “woo hoo!” moment of recognition) before I move on to the next project.

I am learning to ignore the autocratic demands of the hardened task master of my thoughts that constantly pushed me to do more.

The results have been remarkable.  Working less hours, I am accomplishing more.  Taking time each day for myself without guilt, I have unleashed a new sense of joy in whatever I am doing.  I am more creative, more focused,…and a lot less stressed.

The 1980’s mantra of “work hard, play hard” needs to be replaced with “work hard, work smart,…then don’t work!”

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com