Most managers (and white-collar workers) face barrages of requests, if not directives, just about every day.
Executives and peers ask managers to do many things such as write reports, attend meetings, do feasibility studies, pay suppliers, or test new products.
Many managers would find themselves busy responding to these requests. So much so that they’d not have any time left in a day to do what they should be doing, which is, managing.
So-called time management experts would tell managers to just say no to requests that aren’t relevant to their jobs. Saying no would demonstrate proactivity, the power to choose from one’s own perspective of priorities.
Unfortunately, saying no doesn’t work outright in the real world.
When I was a manager of a shipping department, I and my team were asked to work through a holiday weekend. I and several of my subordinates had plans to for that weekend, but executives “asked” us to shelve those plans and work because the they wanted us to deliver pending orders to meet the company’s monthly sales target. Executives wouldn’t accept a “no” and didn’t want to listen to our reasons (which generally was to take a break from work). We ended up working through the weekend, met the monthly sales target, but didn’t get any praise or reward (except for some free pizza which the executives sent while we worked over the weekend).
Executives don’t like no’s especially from subordinates. This is because executives perceive any “no” as an affront to their agenda. Executives see “no” as defiance and therefore will not take “no” for an answer.
When a boss makes a request to a manager, it’s really a command done politely. A request from a boss can be translated as “I’m asking you nicely to respond but if you don’t, I’ll tell you to do it.” Executives don’t allow much room for compromise when it comes to their directions, everyone in the supply chain must march to the same beat.
The impracticality to say “No”, however, isn’t the end to a manager’s hopes. Managers still have two (2) ways to push back. They can procrastinate and negotiate.
In the various management positions I held, I always had plenty of work to do. Memo requests I received were often marked urgent or rush and whoever wrote them asked for immediate responses.
When I received such requests, I would categorise either as Will do or Will Not Do. Will Do requests were those I’d be willing to do because I judged them as consistent with the needs of the workplace I was managing. Will Not Do requests were judged the opposite, as in not helpful or relevant to my job description. I’d place the memos on their respective piles but I didn’t throw them away. (This was in the 1980’s so there weren’t any e-mails or chat groups yet. But I do the same categorisation today via my computer and devices).
I wouldn’t tell the sources of the Will Not Do tasks that I won’t be doing what they asked me to do. I’d wait to see if they would follow up. If they didn’t, I’d just leave the request sitting in that pile of Will Not Do. If they did follow up, I’d still not do the task. I would procrastinate. If the source comes back and follows up repeatedly and frequently, only then would I consider moving the task to the Will Do group, otherwise it stays in the Will Not Do pile. I figure a request would be important only when the source spends significant time asking (or telling) me to respond.
But even if I consider converting a Will Not Do to a Will Do, I would still push back. I would ask the source why the request is important and why I should do it. Maybe the source can delegate the request to someone else? Or the source can review whether the request is worth the work? I’d negotiate. I would finally agree to responding to a request after I’d be satisfied with the argument of the sources and their justification.
Or I’d finally agree to respond if the source is a superior who stops asking and starts commanding me to do it. And even if it comes down to a command, I’d still ask the superior source politely to put it in writing.
I learned not to commit immediately to requests. I’d acknowledge them but I wouldn’t make promises. I would if the sources press me to but only after I’d do some procrastinating and negotiating.
By experience, I have found both tactics to be simple but effective means to filter the urgent and important from those that aren’t. Many requests have turned out to be trash or withdrawn after procrastination and negotiation. And it has saved me time.
For managers, doing these two tactics can make a difference in how their time are spent and getting to meet goals that they fully feel are more important.