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  • Writer's pictureRegan Bach

Why Managers Should Never Say Yes… (Unless They Absolutely Mean It)

No matter what you do, don’t ever say Yes (unless you absolutely mean it). Why? Because one Yes equals ten Yes’s. That’s right — every time you say Yesit’s like saying Yes to ten things!

Every Yes you give has layers upon layers of commitments behind it. These commitments then become the proverbial “monkeys” on your back.

“Yes. I’ll help you solve your problem”

“Yes. I’ll meet for lunch tomorrow.”

“Yes. I’ll have that done by Monday.”

Yes’s are NOT as innocent as they initially appear. Many of them hide a shadowy dark side. Using the succulent as an analogy, what you thought you said Yes to was a single petal on the outside of the plant. Yet right behind that petal, lies a series of other Yes’s that you also committed to (without even realizing it), that are necessary to fulfill your initial Yes. Sharing some examples will better highlight the concept.

“Boss Scenario” — On Thursday afternoon when your boss asks you to draft a report by Monday morning, and you say Yes, little do you realize that you actually just said Yes to: - two late nights in the office over the weekend  - missing your daughter’s soccer game  - having to work with Derek from accounting (who you f’ing despise)  - frustrating your spouse because you’re gone all weekend - sacrificing your Saturday workout (your only one of the week) - increasing your overall stress and frustration levels  - Yes…Yes…Yes…Yes

“Client Scenario” — Your work week is already packed, when an important client asks you to meet for lunch. You say Yes and figure you’ll just find a way to make it work. You know you need to be prepared in advance, so you do your due diligence, which ends up taking a few hours away from your weekend. You also didn’t realize that the traffic on the drive down was going to be brutal, turning a 20 minute commute into an hour long stop-and-go nightmare.

You’re now running late and still have to park your car. To save time you valet, which costs double what it should. You barely make it to the meeting. Thankfully it goes well. You leave with a robust list of actions and next steps from your conversation. You hop back in your car and have to again fight traffic on the way back to work. There goes at least another hour of your life staring at flashing red tail lights. You get where this story is headed.

1 YES = 10 YES’s → A simple “Yes, I’ll do lunch” quickly turned into a series of Yes’s that you didn’t account for.

“Direct Report Scenario” — One often overlooked scenario is when managers say Yes to helping their direct reports solve issues in honor of expediency, rather than pausing for a moment, and ensuring the direct report has applied the appropriate time, energy, and effort to solving it on their own. This usually occurs because managers happen to know enough about the issue to have an opinion, and may even have the right answer, although lack the awareness (or patience) to push back on the direct report.

In this scenario the manager (with the best of intentions) unknowingly says Yes to taking on their direct report’s problem, thus allowing the proverbial monkey to hop off the employee’s back…and onto theirs. We see this happen frequently in our work, and it has a direct impact on a manager’s time and overall ability to perform.

One of the best articles ever written on the pitfalls of saying Yes to direct reports without clearly understanding what you’re committing to, is “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” . It was originally published in the Harvard Business Review in 1974, and reprinted in 1999 with new commentary by Stephen Covey. It remains highly relevant even today because managers continue to struggle with time management and spend a considerable amount of time “fixing” other people’s problems rather than focusing on their own work. (NOTE — Another great article comes from Better Faster Further’s own Lou Naranjo, titled “Time to Get Your Shit Together. A Recovering Workaholic’s Insight on Time Management”)

It can be difficult not to say Yes at times. Some people are conflict avoidant, and have a hard time not pleasing others. Many people are stressed out and feel rushed (especially at work), making it difficult to slow down and reflect on what they’re actually agreeing to. For others, it feels easier to simply say Yes and do the work themselves.

So what’s the solution? How do we avoid collecting monkeys throughout our day? How can we stop over-committing and saying Yes to everything?

Action #1: Just Say No — As simple and straight forward as this may sound, most people have difficulty saying No. Saying No can feel counterintuitive and even rude. However, there is power in saying No — a power that is often underutilized. Admittedly, building up the “No Muscle” can take a bit of time and may feel awkward at first. Over time, you will learn that saying No can be highly effective and appropriate.

Action #2: Ask More Questions — Surprisingly, not saying Yes doesn’t necessarily mean saying No. It simply means that we no longer say Yesautomatically. We reserve our Yes’s and perhaps use them more sparingly. We hold on to our commitments for when they’re truly needed. We ask clarifying questions. We poke around and get a better lay of the land before we say Yes. Some examples include:

  • “What have you done thus far to remedy this on your own?”

  • “If I wasn’t here right now, what would you do to fix this or move this forward yourself?”

  • “Convince me why I’m the one that needs to make this decision?”

Action #3: Do Nothing — Literally do nothing. When you’re having a meeting, and the inevitable question comes, “So what are the next steps and who are the owners?” DO NOTHING. Let the question hang in the room. Do absolutely nothing. Let the awkward silence hang…and continue to hang…until a hand is raised and responsibility is taken. If nobody raises their hand… continue to do nothing!

By doing nothing…you’re doing something. You are refusing to allow the monkey, and thus the burden of responsibility, to jump on your back. You are forcing others to step up and take ownership. You are showing your team that you no longer operate in the same capacity. As surprising as it may seem, by doing nothing, you can actually get increased commitment and accountability from your team. Imagine that…!

There is a time and a place for Yes. Yes’s are sacred. They feel good to share with people. That said, Yes’s often come with baggage (i.e. monkeys) when used carelessly or too liberally.

Remembering that one Yes equals ten Yes’s helps increase your awareness as to how many things you unconsciously commit to. By being more aware of what you commit to, you’ve set yourself up to be able to say Yes to the right stuff and No to everything else. That shift alone greatly increases overall productivity and gives managers back some of their most precious and limited resource — TIME!

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Better Faster Further is a strategic consulting and executive coaching firm that helps leaders, teams, and organizations maximize peak performance. We empower people and businesses to become the best they can be. Learn more via LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

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