360° Answers: When a Coworker Won’t Say No

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

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?

Alison Green says:

Well, first, understand that it’s not your job to fix this problem; it’s your manager’s. And in order for that to happen, you may need to bring it to his attention. And it IS a problem: This isn’t a difference in work styles, where you’d simply need to adjust to working with someone different than you. This is a problem that has a direct impact on your own work, and on your department’s ability to get the right results.

However, the right first step is to talk to your coworker about what your team’s priorities are, and where energy should be focused. Get aligned on clear goals for both of you, with plans for how you’ll achieve them. As part of that conversation, point out that achieving these goals will necessarily mean not doing other things – and that will mean handling requests that fall outside your priorities differently. You should explicitly say to her, “Since we’ll need to really be focused to make X, Y, and Z happen, we’ll need to handle other requests and ideas differently. Let’s set up a file of ideas to consider later on, maybe when we’re creating next year’s goals. And if something seems important enough that we should add it to our list for right now, then let’s agree to meet and decide what we’ll remove from the list to make room for it.”

If she resists – or if she agrees but then doesn’t change her behavior – then you’ll need to get more direct:  “Jane, when you say yes to things outside our main priorities, it takes me away from the most important things I need to be working on. I need you to talk to me before you agree to take on new projects that will affect my workload.”

And if the problem continues after that, it’s something your manager needs to be aware of.

Alexandra Levit says:

I can rather picture this person.  She is very idealistic and enthusiastic, but lacks the experience and critical eye to fully understand what’s doable and what isn’t.  Working with her would probably drive me to distraction too.

But that’s not helpful, because your success in your role depends on your ability to get this co-manager to cooperate with you.  So I’d appeal to what seems to matter most to her – that people like her.  I’d take her to lunch and preface the discussion with how happy you are to be working alongside one of the group’s rising stars.  Ask her if she’s amenable to developing a system for vetting projects so that the two of you are perceived as a can-do team, the one with which everyone wants to work.

Then, lay out your suggestion.  I recommend that this include meeting semi-weekly to discuss your duo’s priorities and decide what you’re going to move forward on, and in what order.  Neither of you should give other team members definitive answers on their recommendations until the two of you have met.  This will hopefully give you a regular chance to talk her out of ideas that are not feasible, or re-direct her energies into the fundamentals you mention.  Always remain positive when discussing an idea, no matter how wacky.  Say something like:  “That sounds really fun, but given that we’ve already committed to X, I think we should revisit it.”  The less forcefully you shut her down, the more likely she is to comply.

It sounds like you may be a little older than her.   If this is the case, perhaps you can offer yourself as a mentor and she’ll begin to lean on you for more strategic direction.  At that point, you can probably be even more direct with her about the problems that can arise when expectations aren’t managed properly, and your advice will be better received.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

I would take one step back and have a discussion that includes establishing expectations. Without clear expectations and boundaries, there is a risk of this type of thing happening again and again.

To start the chat, pick one project that has created more work for you without a beneficial payoff and discuss with her face-to-face. Give her time to react and listen while she explains why she was so enthusiastic to implement. There might be something behind it (such as trying to impress you, a misguided attempt to prove she is hardworking, or perhaps she is struggling to understand how she can make an impact since she’s new). Listen carefully because the explanation she gives presents an opportunity to redirect her future actions to be more in line with the intentions she had.

Anita Bruzzese says:

It could be that the reason your colleague is so eager to say “yes” is because she may be concerned that if she says “no” she won’t be thought of as a team player or somehow be thought of as a lazy new hire. (After all, she may have some legitimate concerns since you weren’t in favor of her hire and she may be picking up some unfriendly vibes from you.)

So, I’d say the first order of business is to sit down with her and just assure her that you think she is hardworking, cheerful and bright.

Then, I’d outline your concerns. Tell her that as a team, you need to focus on results that have a bottom-line impact, and you’d like to come up with some mutual goals. That means decisions are made together – she can’t accept work without clearing it with you and vice versa.

To get the ball rolling, I’d set up a joint calendar that shows what you’re both working on and when projects are due.  I’d also track the amount of hours being devoted to projects and the projected ROI.  This will help you set up a criteria for accepting projects so that in the future you’re not bogged down in work that doesn’t have a direct payoff. (This is where you can show her the proof that your numbers are suffering.)

At the same time, I’d let her know that you appreciate her enthusiasm and willingness to be open to ideas. This isn’t always a bad thing, and don’t discount that her networking won’t have a payoff. But the key is to stop resenting her actions, and instead communicate openly with her about mutual goals.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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