You are juggling a full slate of work, coaching your team, and driving to tight deadlines. Then you get the call. It’s yet another request for your help from an important collaborator — your boss, a critical cross-functional partner, or an internal or external customer. The request is, as usual, urgent and important. It’s also a meaningful amount of work and the quality matters. Now what?
Responding with a “sure, I’m on it,” generates good will, but at what cost? When these emergencies happen frequently, they cause burnout, disengagement, substandard work, and missed deadlines. Because they often cause you to punt on your own top priorities, long term work like scenario planning or deep work like market analysis, inevitably gets shortchanged.
On the other hand, responding with a curt “no can do,” creates ill will and leaves people with the impression you’re not a team player or simply “don’t get” the urgent needs of the business.
In the moment, it seems like you are trapped between saying “yes,” and bearing the workload cost or saying “no,” and damaging your reputation and relationships. Happily, there are a range of viable responses in between. Next time you’re confronted with a situation in which you shouldn’t say yes, but can’t say no, consider one of these alternatives:
1. Stress test the timeline: Sure, sometimes urgency is driven by a critical customer need or unexpected market opportunity. More often, however, deadlines are a bit arbitrary and are often set without considering the full system. In those situations, try saying something like this: “I’m happy to help with this, but my calendar is at capacity this week. If this can be deferred until next week, I can make it a priority then.”
2. Reframe your role: My mother-in-law has a magnet on her refrigerator that reads “Stop me before I volunteer again.” While work often feels more like being “volun-told,” you too can stop yourself before agreeing to take on one more thing. This is best done through a generous, yet appropriate counter-offer such as: “Thank you for asking me to join the steering team. This is important work and I fully support it. I don’t have the bandwidth to serve as a team member, but would be happy to provide feedback on specific deliverables or mentor some of the more junior members of the team.”
3. Rebalance your portfolio: In Agile software development, teams manage the workload through a Task Board. This board is a visual representation of the decisions the team has made about where to spend their time during a sprint. When a stakeholder wants to add something new, the team can simply ask “what do you want to remove to make space for that?” For most of us, our ‘task board’ is neither visible nor static. If you are asked to take on a new project that will put you over the edge, sit down with your manager or team to look at the work portfolio together and decide where to focus and what can be deferred, re-scoped, or eliminated.
Top performers are always in demand. You will constantly be pulled in too many directions. Before burning out or burning bridges, recognize your power to find the space between yes and no.