when a coworker won’t say no

A reader writes:

My manager quit earlier this year, leaving me to run the marketing department with a woman we’d just hired.

I wasn’t in favor of the hire because I was concerned that she lacks professional maturity, but now she’s my co-director and we’re making do.  They’re not replacing my manager, and there’s been no conversation about how our roles have changed or what our strategic direction forward looks like—we’re just barging ahead.  My problem is this:  She’s hardworking, cheerful, and bright—and absolutely incapable of saying “no” to any request.  Whether it’s another director, a member of the senior team, or even (not making this up) a janitor with another “great idea” for improving the web site, she’s on board and happy to make it happen.  Web cams on the roof?  Sure!  Amateur photo contest?  Why not!  Some of the projects have been great, but most just clutter up the site and create huge amounts of work for me, because she doesn’t think about how her “happy to do it” attitude drags me into hours of editing work for unproven ideas that sound like fun and then backfire in big ways.  Our more boring, but important, work falls by the wayside, and our numbers are suffering because she won’t focus on fundamentals.

We now report to someone off-site, and he’s as hands-off as can be.  How can I work with her to make her understand that we need to make decisions as a team, and that her decisions set precedents for expectations we can’t undo?

You can read my answer to this question over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today.

Plus, three other careers experts are answering this question there today too. Head on over there for answers…

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. AnotherAlison*

    Not that the OP can change it, but what are your general thoughts on “co-directors” and leaving no one (except in this case, a hands-off, offsite manager) with final decision-making power?

    In my experience, it hasn’t worked AT ALL! It could work, I suppose, with two employees who click well and either naturally assume a hierarchy or are exact equals professionally who have a identical vision for the department. But, how often are those the people working together? (I’m in a similar situation, but I wouldn’t characterize my coworker quite like the OP did hers, and enough details are different that we would need another AAM letter to get into it, lol.)

    1. K*

      It’s not an unusual set-up in a lot places that aren’t organized hierarchically though. I think it can work fine when it’s the normal mode of operating. It’s all about expectations. Yeah, it can cause problems if one of the people isn’t cooperative, but having a terrible manager can also cause problems. I haven’t had any more problems working with people in situations where I’m co-equal to them than I have in situations where there’s a manager to make the call.

      1. Seal*

        My experience has also been that having co-managers or co-directors is a recipe for disaster. The bottom line is that one person and ONLY one person has to be in charge. Worst case scenario is that disgruntled employees will start playing the co-directors off each other; ultimately no one wins.

        Early in my career I wound up co-managing a department with an otherwise nice guy who was lazy, sloppy and not at all detail-oriented in a job that demanded a great deal of attention to detail. As his antithesis, not to mention the one who did the majority of the work and all of the problem-solving, I was always the bad guy in the eyes of our employees because I insisted on holding them accountable for their work habits and schedules. Because the work was getting done (by me), our 0ff-site manager had no idea how dysfunctional our office really was. In retrospect, I should have made our supervisor aware of what was going on and why it was a problem – I would have saved myself and everyone else years of unnecessary misery.

      2. A Bug!*

        I think in general it’s important that one person have the ultimate say in situations where agreement can’t be reached. It would be ideal if co-directors knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses well enough that, following discussion, they each ultimately deferred to the other’s expertise in the appropriate circumstances.

        But in situations where the people involved aren’t quite so reasonable (or maybe just aren’t a great fit for each other), it would be much better for one or the other to have the final authority.

      3. Chinook*

        I think this is one of those cases where, with the right people, it would work wonderfully and probably would even evolve naturally into something like this. But, for most cases, there really needs to be someone where the buck stops. Having watched DH work in the Canadian military environment where hierarchy was very clear, I was envious about how it was so easy to know who had the final say, even if you didn’t always agree with them. But, the flip side was that people got trained as managers as they worked their way up the chain and were told that the job of a good manager is to support the people actually doing the work (i.e. giving them the tools and protection from whatever happens to be running downhill so that they can actually work). DH even had a few bosses who treated him as a peer up until someone has to make a decision. The lines may have been blurry but there were always there and it gave structure.

        I was most envious of this type of attitude the day before a long weekend where we had 10 partners at a firm where I worked who would let their individual people go but no one wanted to step up and close the office or dismiss the receptionist even 10 minutes early. When asked, they would always point to someone else to ask until I got back to the original person. When I pointed this out, I was told that I guess that meant we stayed open for our regular hours even if I was the only one there.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, this is one of those things that works only if both co-directors are good at their jobs, reasonable, etc. — and even then it often has stresses and inefficiencies. Ultimately, someone has to be the one who has final responsibility.

      1. Sam*

        I’ve seen the co-directors situation work well in only one case. Two women had been working together for 10+ years when their manager retired. These women were very similar – in work style, personality, even appearance – and were great friends. They stepped up, divided the work of their manager, and managed to increase productivity in their unit. The CEO was super impressed, gave both raises, and let them continue on as co-directors. I think this case is probably the exception, not the rule.

      2. Seal*

        This. Any time you have a group of more than 2 people, one person and ONLY one person HAS to be in charge or nothing ever gets done.

  2. fposte*

    I had a colleague like this, and there really wasn’t direct management above us. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the logic of prioritization–she just got a charge from anything new and shiny, so saying yes (or “let’s do this thing!”) was a strong pleasure that she couldn’t resist. The problem I found, which the OP doesn’t mention, is that I became the professional reiner-in, which meant my job was to be negative to everything. That’s depressing to do and depressing to have as your persona.

    1. anon o*

      Oh man, I know what you mean about being the professional reiner-in. I kind of take that role a lot too and I know exactly what you mean, I struggle with that so much.

    2. Yup*

      Totally sympathize. The other person gets to have the peppy “we can do it!” persona, while you get cast in the Eeyore role. I worked indirectly with someone like that, and had to keep my mouth shut on some pretty half-baked ideas so I didn’t end up always being the Debbie Downer. So exhausting.

    3. KarenT*

      The problem I found, which the OP doesn’t mention, is that I became the professional reiner-in, which meant my job was to be negative to everything. That’s depressing to do and depressing to have as your persona.

      This! I have also been in this position and it’s not fun. I worked in a role where we were encouraged to be innovative and creative, but this often came at odds with things like budgets and realistic expectations.

      I always felt like I was trying to come up with and implement successful (but possible and practical) strategies that actually acheived business goals while some of my co-workers were chasing rainbows. I felt like a dream killer and it wasn’t fun.

    4. Diane*

      That’s my role for my whole institution of shiny-object people. It’s bad for my career there because they don’t believe me, even when I eep them out of legal trouble. I’d let them plunge forward and suffer, but I can’t do it to our students or my reputation.

      I’d say more, but the letter k sticks or won’t wor and all this deleting is illing me!

  3. Eric*

    Bully her!

    Take the dominant position in the co-directorship. She sounds like she is eager to please so take advantage of that by making sure you are the one she is pleasing. Stick to your priorities. Indicate to her that you want to come to agreement before anything goes up on the website. Have a weekly meeting where you discuss it.

    1. K*

      I have to say, when I read the letter my thought was: “Either the OP is the only person she’s willing to say no to, or she hasn’t broached the subject with the co-worker at all.” If the co-worker understands that saying yes to other people means saying no to the co-worker – i.e., that blithely saying yes to everyone isn’t consequence-free – she might shape up pretty quickly.

    2. Jill*

      This was my reaction too. Most people are uncomfortablewithout a leader to follow. Since OP has no director, just assume leadership, set the rules with a no-nonsense, no-negotiation tone and make your displeasure clear when she breaks the (i.e. your) rules.

      Among these new policies, I would definately lay out specific criteria for how new projects/ideas will be assessed and make it clear that sometimes you will be telling people no.

      If she gets huffy and threatens to complain – let her. Maybe that’ll be the catalyst that gets upper management to hire your area a real Director.

  4. LMW*

    I’m seeing a bit of this at my new job, where I have a director who says yes a lot and new coworkers who are asking me to please help reign it in. I’m trying to institute an idea submission process and make sure all projects get put on schedule. That way we can say, “Great idea! We’ll add that to our list for consideration when we look at our spring projects.” And we’ll look at it, and then decide if it’s doable, instead of just doing everything without thinking about how it impacts our resources and fits into our goals and strategies.

  5. Sam*

    Confession: I say yes too often. It’s usually small things, not major projects that sidetrack strategic goals, but the extra work still adds up. I’m grateful for the tips in this column and would appreciate any other advice on saying no.

    1. Yup*

      I find that I consistently underestimate how long little projects will take. I’ll think, “Oh, that’ll only take two hours, no big deal.” But I’ve learned that my mental estimates are based on continuous uninterrupted work time, rather than real work time (when you’re interrupted every 5 minutes and have 10 things competing for your attention).

      So whenever I find myself thinking, “It’ll just take a second…”, I mentally double that estimate and then compare it to the stuff already at the top of my to-do list. Am I OK spending four hours on this new task, instead of the other project I’m trying to clear off my desk? (Especially knowing that the other project will still be sitting there staring at me when I’m finished the new task.) If yes, OK to proceed. If not, pass.

      1. mh_76*

        Yup, I’ve always found it helpful to overestimate the amount of time that I need to do something….not drastically but enough to account for interruptions and some unforeseen whatevers.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Knowing when to say no is really about knowing what you should be saying yes to: Getting really clear on your goals at the beginning of the year (or quarter or month), and having a plan for achieving them. That tells you where your energy should be focused. If you get aligned with your boss on that and then you’re focused like a laser on making those things happen, it becomes a lot more natural to say no to things that will take you away from your goals. But you’ve got to have those clear goals (ambitious but still realistic, and concrete enough that you’ll know when you’ve reached the finish line) in order to make that happen, and you’ve got to truly be committed to doing everything you can to meet them.

      1. Sam*

        Thanks, this helps. I have found it easier to say no when I can cite a priority project that takes precedence. Still, this is an area I need to continue working on. It’s so easy to say yes to one simple request… and then one request becomes two, then three, and so forth until I’m working late into the evening to get my own projects done.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, and it’s also about being really, really clear in your own head that anything you say yes to means something else won’t get done (assuming you already have a full workload). So you need to make a deliberate decision each time about whether you’re willing to not do something else in order to take on the new thing. Generally, that bar should be pretty high; if you set out your goals at the start of the period, it should take a lot to replace one with something else; it shouldn’t be done willy-nilly.

      1. fposte*

        In my position, I’m expected to jump on a fair amount of stuff that turns up and a lot of vaguely germane stuff floats my way, so there’s a fair amount of triage of this kind. In addition to what Alison says, I find it helpful to calculate what I’d be doing it for (mostly: money, organization profile, career advantage, personal interest, or looking bad for staying away) and how much value it would bring. So maybe an event would raise our profile with a particular group, but are we even trying to raise our profile with that group? If we are, have we maybe focused enough on that goal already this year? Is there a modified way to participate that takes fewer labor hours and do we want to do that instead of saying “All of it” or “None of it”?

    4. Natalie*

      I’m not sure how applicable my situation with be because my role is primarily supportive, and I’m the only member of my department in my office so my co-workers can’t exactly go to a colleague if I can’t help them. That said, I’ve found a simple, clear discussion about my current to-do list (priorities and time allotted) and where the new task fits in keeps me from sliding on more important things while still being helpful.

      This isn’t necessarily a long conversation – many times I will say something like “Yes, I can get that report together but probably not until Wednesday. A B & C are due as soon as possible.” and my co-worker agrees and everything’s set.

    5. AnotherAlison*

      Chiming in on your comment & the general discussion of learning to say no, I second Natalie’s comment about agreeing to do projects and evaluating how they fit into your current to do list. I’m not a support position, but some of my work involves handling requests from others that only my coworker and I can do (well, not really, but we have the software licenses). These aren’t always our top priority, but we can say yes and let the requesters know they are 3rd in line and we won’t get to them until February.

      Additionally, for some of the more frivolous requests that the OP’s coworker is saying yes to, the department might consider an electronic suggestion box. It sounds silly, but we had a similar process implemented company-wide for “innovation projects” and it’s worked well. People can submit an idea online and a committee is in place to evaluate the idea on its own merit and against other priorities. If approved, an implementation plan has to be developed, complete with budget, action item assignments, etc. The committee might just be the OP & the coworker, but it would be a way to stop things like immediate approval of webcams on the roof without discussion. The OP doesn’t have to be the bad guy if the coworker is forced to consider budget & other resources in the committee meetings. Maybe the hands-off manager could be persuaded into rubber stamping committee decisions, too.

  6. Anonymous*

    I’m going to suggest something here. If the Yeser in the post doesn’t have enough to do or isn’t feeling like they are getting the training to do the full part of the job they might look at it and go hey I have lots of time of course I can do this. If the OP has to do a bunch of work to support the Yeser in tasks can they start handing those tasks off to the Yeser?

    When I started my job I was a Yeser. My coworker was always way to busy to get me anything I needed to do my job. So I plowed ahead with projects others asked me to do. My coworker was very unhappy about it. But as she started to actually show me how to do parts of the job I was able to make her job easier, get the passwords/resources/insider baseball that I needed to do my job and not just the random tiny one off projects that I could accomplish.

    I’d recommend sitting down and seeing if you are dividing up the work well. Talk to your Yeser, chances are good this person really wants to help, and you already started with a really bad attitude* toward the Yeser so it might be worth revisiting that a little.

    Instead of letting other people give the Yeser projects, OP can give the Yeser projects. I’m mean they’ll say yes right? Move stuff you don’t like off your plate, it will make life easier for both of you.

    *the second sentence talks about how the OP didn’t like the Yeser from the start which is what I’m basing this on

  7. mh_76*

    Do sit her down and discuss what is priority, what should be filed in a projects folder to be revisited later, and what is not a good idea. It sounds like you are the webmaster and should have final say about what does/n’t go on the website, especially because your manager is essentially a deadbeat. Do acknowledge her enthusiasm but do let her know what the downsides of saying yes to everything are. Do tell her that it’s OK to say “no” or “we’ll have to discuss and get back to you” sometimes.

    Do not call her a “rising star” – it sounds like she grew up being told that she was a star and not hearing anything otherwise and if you say that to her, it (in her mind) may validate her always trying to please and impress everyone. Maybe she will grow into a star but maybe she won’t and to call her a “rising star” will only set (or further cement) in her head the idea that she is / will become a star and set her up for disappointment if (when) that doesn’t happen in this or other jobs.

    Do be as diplomatic as possible.

    “Anonymous January 3, 2013 at 10:46 am” also gives good advice.

    Question: does she know how to update/manage webpages? Could you set up the CMS so that there is one page and one page only to which she has access and that she is in charge of updating with things that you’ve said “no” to?

    I volunteer with someone who doesn’t say “no” enough and often says “yes” to things that haven’t even been asked of him. Some would see him as a go-getter but some (including the staff and a few other volunteers) see him as a PITA though acknowledging his enthusiasm. I enjoy having someone so enthusiastic who is willing to help out above & beyond what’s expected of him but, when I first met him, I set the expectation with him that when I’m in charge of something, he should ask me first before taking initiative and don’t be hurt if I say “no” or redirect him though I have said “yes”. The difference between this vol. and your colleague though (based on reading your post) is that he may have ADHD (an honest observation) and your colleague sounds like an immature, entitled brat who just can’t say no goodness forbid she disappoint someone. I hope that that is not the case with her and that she is able to listen to reason, to watch/learn about how to prioritize what’s important and what isn’t, and (most importantly) to say a kind “no” to things that really aren’t priority or beneficial.
    (sorry so long)

    1. fposte*

      mh, I really like your idea about setting things up so that the extra-load Yesses stay the problem of the person who committed. While the bigger problem still needs to be addressed, this is a way to help the OP out quickly, and the colleague may even dial back on the Yesses if she realizes she has to do all the follow-through work.

  8. Not So NewReader*

    Really great comments here!

    This could actually be more about saying NO than the works itself.
    OP, how do you decide when to say no to a project? What criteria do you use?
    I can almost see a poster going up on the office wall “We will take projects that fit this criteria: A,B, C…”

    Have you ever heard her say NO to anything? Maybe she needs a five minute talk on how to politely say no to someone. Don’t get Eeyore syndrome.

    And finally- the projects that she agrees to do not land in her lap. It seems to me that if she agrees to a project she should own it from start to finish. You should not have to be cleaning it up.

    On the regular tasks and special projects that come from your boss who is accountable in the end? You? Both of you? It seems to me if the necessary work is not getting done and you both are equally accountable. I mean you have the same job title.

    I have found in the past that making a to-do list before going home at night is a big labor saver. In the morning, I have my list to point to- “This is what we need to get done today.”
    To me it sounds like she feels her work environment is unstructured. Something as simple as a daily list might begin to add that structure. You won’t have to do it forever, just for a while.

    1. mh_76*

      And finally- the projects that she agrees to do not land in her lap. It seems to me that if she agrees to a project she should own it from start to finish. You should not have to be cleaning it up.


  9. lance*

    Well, from my own experience, if she starts saying ‘no’ to people to whom she used to say ‘yes’, she’s going to have problems with them. They’re going to take it personally and start slagging her with pitching ‘attitude’. In my case it was even worse. I was a male in a low-level part-time admin position working in an office of women. I would say ‘yes’ to everything simply because I was new to the post and wanted to establish a reputation as a ‘can-do’ person. A few of the women however were convinced that I said ‘yes’ to them (even though my manager warned me not to do so), because I was ‘into them.” Once I started saying ‘no’, it was mayhem. The simplest thing would set them off screaming at me, even in public. I could overhear them saying things like, “Watch what I’m going to say to him if he….” At least one of them would dial my extension and slammed down the receiver when I answered.
    Moral of the story: it’s not easy going from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ though I much prefer the situation after I started saying ‘no.’

    1. Anonymous*

      I think you may be right about people having difficulty with a change, but I also think your office sounds like there was some unmanaged crazy there.

  10. Anon*

    This issue comes up for me since I am a recent grad and new hire (albeit not one in a position of power). When I receive requests, I am used to just carrying it out, based on my previous experience as a student and as an intern grunt. Because I do the last step in a process, I assume that whoever is asking me to do something has thought it through, gotten approval from several people, etc.

    I burned a couple of times doing something I shouldn’t have or not pushing back enough. How do you develop 1) a healthy screening skepticism and 2) ability to say no without seeming hard to work with?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      A lot of this goes back to having gotten aligned with your manager up-front about what your goals are, and where your energy should (and shouldn’t) be going. Then when something new comes up, you can evaluate it and figure out whether you think it’s something you should take on, in light of what you know about your priorities and workload. Because you’re in a junior level position, at that point you can go to your manager and say, “Jane suggested I do X. I think that makes sense to take on and was thinking I’d prioritize it after Y but ahead of Z. Does that sound right to you?” Or, “Jane suggested I do X. I’m thinking I’ll put it on a list of projects to consider in the future rather than taking it on right now because X and Y are higher priorities. Does that sound right to you?”

      Or “I think we probably shouldn’t do it because of ___” or “I was thinking of passing the idea on to Mary to see if she’s interested in it” or whatever you think makes sense. The more you go through this process — making a judgment call and then confirming it with your manager (giving her the option to adjust it or change it) — the better you’ll get at making the right calls.

      As for what to say to the person making the suggestion, before you’ve had the chance to talk to your manager, say something like, “Thanks for the suggestion! Let me talk to (my manager) and see where this might fit in with our projects.”

  11. Lily*

    There have been some really great suggestions here! I agree completely that the Yeser is responsible for the projects she agrees to. I have also worked with Yesers and I have noticed that it is also very important to clarify who does what, to make sure that you not only do not end up having to take over the projects they said “yes” to, but also do not have to take over the duties they don’t have time for, because they have over-committed themselves. IMHO, if someone both commits to projects that I have to do and decides (in end effect) what my regular duties are, then that person had better be my boss! If this person is not my boss, they are overstepping their role!

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