When asked to state their philosophy of leadership, a recent group of Leadership Coaching’s executive clients responded:
"A leader is someone who is always there when needed."
"Leadership means never being afraid to pitch in, no matter how small the task."
"A true leader would never ask anyone to do something the leader would not be willing to do."
Where did these leaders learn that effectiveness means always finding a way to say yes-when clinical research and experience have shown just the opposite?
Edwin Friedman, in his groundbreaking book "A Failure of Nerve," defines a weak leader as "a highly anxious risk avoider, more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone who treats conflict like mustard gas. Such leaders are often nice, if not charming."
The automatic yes behavior of leaders might show up when a leader promises to keep a secret before knowing the nature of the secret or says yes to a request before thinking about whether she can deliver on it.
Knee-jerk yes responses from leaders harm not only the organization and the employees but the leaders themselves.
Instantaneous "helpfulness" stimulates dependence and compromises the self-confidence of employees. Further, leaders who automatically say yes risk physical and emotional sickness from absorbing the stress of taking on too much responsibility.
Addicted to approval
So why are leaders so hung up on saying yes most of the time?
Jack, the CEO of a small engineering firm, has been talking with me about his weak leadership.
Like a hardened addict, Jack craves approval and will do just about anything to feel bonded to his staff, his spouse and his two children. Approval is his drug of choice.
When he tries saying no, Jack admits, he often suffers excruciating discomfort at the other person’s emotional reaction. When an employee or family member looks disappointed about his refusal, Jack will usually cave in and change his no to a maybe or a yes. This restores approval and cements the togetherness bond, and Jack’s comfort level goes up again.
But it probably doesn’t serve the best interests of either the organization or the individuals seeking a trustworthy and beneficial response.
Jack is a good-hearted and logical business leader. How might he find the gumption to stick with a no response in the face of disapproval?
I asked Jack if he would take on an assignment that might help him learn something about his yes habit. Every day for the next month, he agreed, he would say no in a situation where he would ordinarily say yes and would monitor others’ immediate responses to this new behavior.
One month later, he reported:
- "I learned that most of the time, when I said I couldn’t help someone who came to me with a request for advice, they figured it out on their own. It was uncanny how effective they were at doing this."
- "I learned that not everyone wants my advice. It struck me that much of my saying yes to others occurred before they even asked! I have reduced my automatic tendency to volunteer help, and the world has not come to an end."
- "I learned that just about every time I said no, I felt a sense of relief. This exercise helped me become more conscious about the stress of always having to be there for others. Instead of going home heavy, I have been leaving work lighter."
- When Jack executed his experiment, he probably didn’t have access to the clinical thinking on overfunctioning from leading health care experts and scientists. For example, Michael Kerr M.D., an internationally known lecturer on cancer, has suggested that certain types of cancer and emotional illnesses such as phobias might be exacerbated when individuals take on more than they can realistically accomplish.
Taking too much responsibility for others, other data suggest, contributes to migraine headaches, loss of sleep, ulcers, back pain, heart palpitations, panic attacks, depression and marital disruption.
It turns out that saying no might be necessary for survival.
The seduction of saying yes
As in Jack’s case, saying yes is seductive because it wins superficial closeness. A steady stream of approval messages-"I don’t know what I would do without you"; "Thank God you’re around. We wouldn’t be able to make it"-only reinforces fake harmony and artificial connection.
Being admired feels comfortable. Less mature leaders will do anything to garner admiration.
But saying yes to win admiration often cheats others out of maturity and confidence. Why? Because the more a leader says yes, the less others are required to think, and the less responsibility others accept for outcomes. That’s why saying yes too often and avoiding no hurts families, businesses and nations.
Seasoned leaders often report that delegating responsibilities increases their efficiency. In the same way, delegating anxiety to others, by cutting back on being available and always solving others’ problems, increases leadership effectiveness.
Discerning when to say yes
Jack discovered that his automatic helpfulness denied his staff and family members opportunities to grow and mature.
But the solution to over-yessing is not over-refusing. Leaders who automatically say no also rob others of the responsibility to think for themselves.
The challenge is to discern when to say yes and when to say no. When both responses flow from clear thinking, a leader’s decisions will be viewed as more trustworthy, more helpful to others and healthier for the leader.
John Engels is the founder of the Advanced Leadership Course and president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a Rochester executive development firm. He can be reached at [email protected]