Learning to “just say no”

News that Lloyds Banking Group chief Antonio Horta-Osorio is to take a leave of absence due to stress prompts a variety of reactions. Such events are unusual. No doubt running a company like Lloyds Banking Group is highly stressful at the best of times, and these are very much not the best of times, but the men (they are usually men) who do these jobs rarely admit to stress even if they feel it. At a personal level, of course one feels he has done the right thing and hopes he recovers soon – jobs are rarely worth endangering your health for.

But this is a phenomenon I have observed again and again in my career, sometimes quite closely from my time in HR. I have seen it in finance, consulting, industry, education, the public sector – nor is it limited to men…Waves of talented, ambitious, hardworking people want to develop their career by taking on more responsibility – they find interesting projects to do, they become overloaded. Then they discover that by working so hard, they are simply raising expectations, and their employer will just take whatever they are willing to give.

This can end in a number of ways. The worst outcome, like that for Mr Horta-Osorio, is some sort of health breakdown. Another possibility is that someone may discover that they thrive on stress and are blessed with a temperament and constitution that allows them to deal with whatever anyone can throw at them. Their patron saint is Baroness Thatcher, who when Prime Minister famously slept for four hours a night, worked solidly and loved it. Perhaps it is this capacity to absorb stress, more than intelligence or people skills, that really determines who makes it to the top. Or maybe these people should start their own business, where at least they themselves will take the rewards of their hard work.

But another group find a middle way. Having learned by experience that it is pointless to agree to everything, they learn to say no. They set boundaries for how long they will work, what they will take on. They will decide what matters in their personal life (perhaps their children, sport or voluntary work) and preserve it at all costs, even if that means irritating their boss.

Strangely enough, the clearest expression of this philosophy I have ever heard was from Hank Paulson, at the time Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, subsequently US Treasury Secretary and, one would have thought, the ultimate alpha male, never willing to admit a weakness. He gave a presentation to Vice-Presidents at Goldman in New York – the determined, ambitious leaders of tomorrow, and as a London-based VP I watched the video. I don’t remember his exact words, but he spoke about how, as a young father, he had been determined to get an early train home to read to his children, finishing his work later in the evening. Then came this, or something like it:

“…if you are prepared to work 45 hours a week, your employer will see if you can work 50. If you will work 50, they will see if you can work 55. And so on.”

There were slight gasps of incredulity here. Was the man at the top seriously telling his middle managers to work less hard? Just to leave no room for doubt, he concluded (and this I do remember exactly):

“People have got to learn to say no.”

It almost felt like the Pope encouraging his clergy to “go forth and multiply”, and caused quite a reaction. But I thought it was fascinating and inspiring, even if not every manager at Goldman really took his advice to heart. What Mr Paulson was saying is that if you come to this understanding, if you negotiate boundaries in your work and life, ultimately not only will you be healthier and happier; you will do your job better too.

This is not intended to be a slackers’ charter. Anyone who is not delivering on what their job requires needs to be dealt with. In fact, I find employers are usually quite bad at tackling underperformance and, when left unchecked, it has a devastating effect on general morale. That is a different issue entirely.

But if you can deliver on your job, you need to avoid being sucked in to a cycle of overwork. Sure, there may well be peaks and troughs in your work – some busy weeks, some quieter ones. Many jobs need flexibility. But if you routinely put in a few extra hours, your employer will usually come to expect and rely on this as a minimum, then perhaps look for a few hours more. The key is to understand that you need to set boundaries – your manager or employer will very rarely do it for you. They will simply be happy to get extra work without extra cost. Once you have set boundaries, you need to be able to have an adult, mutually respectful conversation about what you are prepared and able to do and what you are not. Everyone’s health, and your long-term performance in the job, will be better for it.

EDIT: An article in the Guardian today (7 Nov) provides some powerful support forn this approach from academics, as a by-product of an industrial dispute. Looks like it may lead to a better negotiation of boundaries.

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