This week I have been running a leadership development program in Central Europe. I feel privileged to be able to spend a week in a pleasant environment and help participants explore more of who they are, who they want to become, how they can become more effective in their leadership roles and how they can clear hurdles that stand in their way. We do this in group settings and one-on-one coaching.
Several of the participants shared that one thing that stands in their way is that they regularly experience conflicting commitments. They feel torn by requests and expectations coming from many different directions, and they struggle to say “no”. They end up living up to the vision that someone else has for their lives rather than realizing their own dreams.
Participants shared a number of tactical hints on how to say “no” smartly. “Explain to the requestor that you are already committed to something else.” “Express that you would really like to help but you are already stretched.” “Negotiate a later dateline for delivering on the request.” “State that you want to provide support, but that you will need resources to do so.” The list continues. Many of these suggestions are good, but they do not address the root cause of the conflict that many feel.
One of the participants nailed it when she expressed what lay behind the concern: Fear. Fear of what they will think of me. (Is he not a hard worker?) Fear of what they will say. (Is he not prepared to take one for the team?). Fear of poor evaluations. Fear of postponed promotion. Fear of being fired. And living in fear is of detrimental to any exercise of leadership. It is hard to be inspirational when you are scared.
Now, courage is not the absence of fear, but the realization that something else is more important, more valuable. How can we gather the courage to say “no” – gently, respectfully – rather than compromising on our principles and sacrificing our plans, our priorities? The key seems to be a combination of self-awareness and a strong sense of purpose. We need the self-awareness to recognize the lurking fear, name it and understand where it comes from. This is the starting point for testing assumptions and reframing how we view the request and the requestor. But this is not sufficient. We also need a personal, strong sense of purpose. This is what we say “yes” to when we say “no” to something else. If this sense of purpose is fuzzy, it is very hard to say “no”. When this sense of purpose is clear and well articulated, it gives us the strength and the courage to give ourselves permission to say “no” to requests which are unreasonable, arbitrary or simply not aligned with what are aiming for.
This is of course not an invitation to be self-centered and navel-gazing and only look out for ourselves. But it is the basis for living centered lives where we pursue our personal vision rather being buffeted helplessly by forces around us. The world will be a better place when our primary motivation is compelling vision rather than fear. Take time to deepen self-awareness and strengthen personal sense of purpose, and encourage those you love to do the same.