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How to check that ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes’


You’re under pressure to deliver. There’s a particular piece of work that you’d like to get done and it falls under the remit of Jasmine, who reports to you.

‘Can you get this done by Friday?’ you ask. She says ‘yes’.

Why, then, are you not relieved and relaxed? Why is there a niggling doubt in your mind?

It’s because you’re remembering times when she didn’t deliver on time what she’d said ‘yes’ to.

And the reason why she didn’t deliver? It wasn’t that she lacked application: she put her heart and soul into her work. It wasn’t that the work was unexpectedly more complicated or difficult – and even if it had been, she had the skills to cope. It wasn’t because she hadn’t understood what you were asking her to do.

No. It was simply that she drove herself hard. She had a huge appetite for work. Her default response was to say ‘yes’ to whatever was asked of her. And yet… there is only so much one person can do, no matter how skilled, conscientious and driven. Because she took on so much, some earlier pieces of work had dragged on beyond their due date.

This leaves you, her manager, with a dilemma. You want the work done on time – and you also want to be able to trust her ‘yes’.


What can you do?

Listen to yourself

Before you say anything, reflect on your own internal dialogue. It might include thoughts like:
•    ‘I’m taking a risk – AGAIN – in asking Jasmine to take on another piece of work.’
•    ‘She’s already under pressure – so I don’t want to add to it by bringing up past problems.’
•    ‘If I press her by asking ‘Have you really got the capacity to take this on, she’ll just say ‘Yes’ again – and where does that leave me?’
•    She’ll think I don’t trust her.

This seems to add up to a dose of self-judgment mixed with uncertainty about your skills, and laced with a feeling of helplessness, particularly when you imagine her repeating that she will take on the work.

The temptation

When you’re in that state of uncertainty, you might resort to pussy-footing around the issue saying things like ‘Jasmine – are you sure you can do this? I mean, I don’t want to overload you – but I know in the past that things have sometimes taken longer than you thought they would.’

When she hears this, is Jasmine likely to backtrack on her original ‘yes’?

I doubt it.

I predict that she will respond with renewed determination to prove her capacity to work. She will say ‘yes’ again – even more strongly. And you will back away, still feeling uncertain about whether she will get the work done on time.


An alternative

Don’t give away your power by leaving it to Jasmine to make the decision alone. Put yourself back in the picture – and approach the situation with a view to making a collaborative decision.

Step 1

Reflect on your inner dialogue and think about what is really important to you. This means you will be grounded and steady in your approach.

You might come up with something like this:
•    ‘I want our clients to see us as reliable, and delivering what we have committed to. Getting this piece of work finished by Friday contributes to that.
•    ‘I want to approach Jasmine with respect for how hard she works.’
•    ‘I value trust, openness and transparency in relationships – and that is particularly important right now, at work.’

Step 2

Plan how you will translate this into your approach to Jasmine. So instead of asking her straight out ‘Can you get this done by Friday’, you might be more explicit about your needs. For example:

‘Jasmine, there’s a piece of work that needs to be done by Friday – and that deadline is critical. Other people’s work here depends on it – and I want to honour our commitment to our clients. It falls within your remit. I have a huge respect for your capacity to get things done – and at the same time I’m aware that you take on so much that some things take longer than expected.
I can’t afford for that to happen right now so before I ask you if you would take on this particular bit of work, I’d like us to spend a few minutes reviewing what else you’re committed to this week, so that I can be confident that we’ve agreed what has priority. Are you up for that?’

This might seem like a lot of words – but the purpose is to express your concerns in a way that is respectful of Jasmine, with the aim of reaching a mutually acceptable outcome.

Taking the time to set things up clearly could save you so much more time in the longer term.

Step 3

Once you’ve got a mutual agreement, you might like to add a strategy for keeping yourself informed of progress. For example: ‘I can’t afford to wait until Thursday evening to find out that there are problems in getting it done. So for my peace of mind, I suggest that we check in on Wednesday morning, to review progress and I can see if there’s anything you need from me to help you get things finished. How does that sound to you?’

Step 4

I can imagine a ‘Yes… but….’ forming in your mind. What if it doesn’t work? What if the piece of work still doesn’t get done by Friday?
If that is the case, then I suggest that you sit down with Jasmine and find out what needs to be done to complete the work. Provide support if you can and if it seems necessary.

Leave the ‘performance review’ until later, when the work has been finished. Once the immediate pressure has eased, talk through with Jasmine what happened. Check her understanding of the consequences of missing the deadline. Repeat what was important for you. Invite her to explain things from her perspective.

If the problem persists, invite her to suggest ways in which she could re-assess her tendency to over-commit. Offer your own suggestions, too, in the spirit of ‘would this work for you?’.

Ultimately, you might have to reconsider the way you allocate work and the systems the team works to.

But long before that happens, it’s up to you to find ways of checking that ‘yes’ is a firm, committed and above all, realistic response to a request.

PS Do you fall into the trap of saying ‘yes’ at home – and then find that you have to drop some of the things you’ve taken on? Think about it!


‘Yes’ can only be said willingly and wholeheartedly if ‘No’ is also a genuine option.


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