Are you being too accommodating?
When I was a little girl, my eldest brother used to borrow from my piggy bank to help fund a night out. As a 7 or 8 year-old where my parents provided everything I needed, I didn’t have much of a case to put up to my twenty-something brother that he couldn’t borrow my money. Yet, even at that tender age, I still had a niggling feeling of a personal boundary being crossed. (Don’t worry – I’ve got over it!)
Fast-forward to adulthood and I find many of the managers and leaders I work with are frustrated that they’re working all the hours God sends yet still not getting done what they need to get done. However early they get started, they feel waylaid by interruptions from the word “go”, starting with emails and messaging via social media platforms, followed by real people wanting a piece of them.
They feel that not being available or turning people away will be perceived as negative, yet accommodating others’ demands above their own leaves them with a feeling a bit like mine when my brother borrowed from my piggy bank.
Why we don’t like saying no
Andy, a senior manager in marketing, is super-helpful. His team love him because he really cares about them, and his colleagues think he’s great because he never says “no” – he’s always the one who will volunteer to take on extra work. The problem is that, although he’s keeping on top of the day-to-day, he’s not delivering on strategic priorities.
Looking back to his childhood, Andy was the youngest of 3 children and, for some reason, was treated as the favourite by his parents. He believes he’s carrying a sense of guilt from that time, driving his need to “give back”, afraid of letting people down.
We have all had experiences in our upbringing that have shaped the way we behave as adults (do take a look at my white paper if you want to learn more about this). And, as human beings, we have an innate need to be approved and accepted by others – belonging to a “tribe” is what historically has kept us safe.
So it’s not surprising that we often default to putting others’ needs above our own, prioritising helping others above turning them down or putting them off to get our own work done.
What can you do to curb your accommodating tendency?
- Take a look at your beliefs. What do you believe will happen if you don’t respond immediately to a request for help? Or if you block time out for yourself in your calendar? One client, a senior manager with twin toddlers working a 4-way week, discovered that her fear that her team and peers would think ill of her if she went off-line on her non-working day were unfounded – they actually wanted her to do that. And her clients accepted that was just a day when she wasn’t available.
- Remove yourself from the environment where you’ll be interrupted. One client gets up at 6am and does 90 minutes of focussed work on important projects at home or in his hotel at least 2 days a week before going into the office – and, importantly, before checking email. Turn off email and messaging notifications during this time to eliminate digital interruptions.
- Schedule recurrent meetings in your calendar with yourself to work on priorities, whether at home or at a suitable time during the week in the office. Have a conversation with your team/colleagues as to your intentions around ring-fencing your time and contract around what it’s ok to interrupt you with, and what it isn’t. Notice how setting boundaries around your availability increases a sense of ownership in your team.
- If people interrupt you whether by email, phone or in-person, remember this is first of all their important not your important. Be charming whilst keeping in mind what is important to you in this moment right now. Aim to delay or delegate their request. For example, “I’d love to help and I’m working on something right now. How about later this afternoon?” or “Is there someone else who could help you with this?”
If it’s a senior stakeholder or an urgent and important request, make it clear to them that taking on their priority may mean delaying or dropping what you’re working on. Escalate the decision to them rather than feeling you need to take on all the responsibility yourself.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alison Reid helps new Directors focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm and effective under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.