This is an excerpt from Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career, a brand-new leadership book by Art Markman.
Think about the requests people make of you. How do you generally respond? If you’re like most of us, you have a dominant response. Some people are prone to assent to requests.
For example, Greg told me about an old boss who thought every idea was a great one. He truly wanted to see people achieve their goals, so he would say “Yes” to almost everything. As a result, his resources were stretched so thin that few of the projects he agreed to support actually succeeded.
In contrast, some people tend to turn down almost everything. I was once chatting with a colleague from another university who jokingly referred to his dean (who controlled the resources for his college) as “Dr. No,” because the dean almost never agreed to move any projects forward. Eventually, people just stopped going to the dean with new ideas.
As a leader, you need to be comfortable saying both “Yes” and “No.”
If you’re agreeable, you have to practice turning people down when they ask for something. Two ways of saying “No” are important here. One is that if you’d really like to support a project but can’t do it right away or as it has been presented, suggest a few alternatives you might be able to support. Encourage continued discussion even when you can’t grant a specific request.
The other is for when someone approaches you with a project that you think is simply a nonstarter. Agreeable people are tempted to be encouraging by saying something such as “I’d like to help, but …” and then blaming some circumstance for their inability to support the request. The problem with this approach is that whoever made the request will probably keep working on the project in the hope of finding some way to address the reason you gave for saying “No.” If you think a project shouldn’t move forward, take responsibility for that decision. Say you’re deciding not to pursue the project. Give employees constructive feedback to help them understand what kinds of requests you might support in the future. But don’t say things that give people false hope.
When saying “No,” it’s important to be clear about why, because you might be turning down something you should consider more seriously.
The personality characteristic “openness to experience” reflects the orientation that people take to new things and new ideas. People “high in openness” will embrace a new idea, even if they ultimately decide it’s not something they want to pursue, while those “low in openness” will reject new ideas just because they’re new. Leaders who are “low in openness” may miss out on valuable opportunities. That is, they have trouble saying “yes.”
For example, Pat worked for a company that invented but didn’t pursue a number of technologies that are now common in people’s daily experience with computers. He told me about a messaging system the company had developed in the early days of the Internet which allowed employees to set up interest groups to discuss topics. Most of the interest groups focused on work problems, though some inevitably focused on entertainment and hobbies. Employees loved the groups, which were useful for allowing people around the world to weigh in on problems being worked on. But the company shut down the system out of concern that people were wasting too much time on things unrelated to work. It didn’t do a real cost-benefit analysis, nor did it attempt to find ways to adapt the system to the work flow. Instead, it pulled the plug on a technology that could have significantly boosted productivity decades before nearly everyone on planet Earth was using social networks.
When you hear a new idea and you have a negative reaction, think carefully about why you have concerns.
In the absence of a reason for your reaction, you may be rejecting it primarily because it’s new. And even if you have a reason, it may not be a good one. Many companies, for example, have neglected to pursue innovative projects because they were afraid to disrupt their current business. They are failing to consider that if a new technology is going to disrupt their business, they should be the ones to bring it to market.
Kodak, the leading producer of photographic film, is a classic example. Kodak originally developed digital imaging technology but chose not to bring it to market for fear that it would cannibalize the film business. The company was correct that digital imaging would disrupt the photography industry, but because of its strategic decision, it failed to benefit from the disruption.
In Bring Your Brain to Work, professor, author, and popular radio host Art Markman focuses on three essential elements of a successful career (getting a job, excelling at work, and finding your next position) and expertly illustrates how cognitive science, especially psychology, sheds fascinating and useful light on each of these elements. Learn more.