“...yes I said yes I will Yes.”
This piece is about the power of positive leadership.
As a boss, I have long practiced a philosophy I call "always start with yes." It involves a simple shift in attitude away from negativity and ambiguity and toward prudent positivity.
Let's imagine a broadly sketched scenario together. You are a supervisor or group leader, and one of the people who reports to you has a request. You must analyze that request within the context of several concerns, some of which the employee may be wholly unaware. For instance, perhaps you manage a budget, or perhaps there are implications regarding the purpose or mission of your organization. How do you handle the request?
Unfortunately, whatever their natural disposition, too many leaders see their primary duty as protecting resources such as money and workers' time. While these resources are vital and should not be squandered, they exist for a reason: to further the ends of the organization. Treating them like coins in a piggy bank, as though once spent they are gone, is unwise. Resource management is not a zero-sum game Good bosses invest resources while husbanding them closely. One of the resources that is most difficult to identify and impossible to measure is good will and the trust it engenders, but it is also among the most valuable if managed correctly. All too often, perhaps because it is so etherial, leaders squander good will in the name of protecting the more measurable resources, like money.
One way to counter this impulse is to start with yes.
In the scenario I laid out before, you could greet the employee's request one of three primary ways. The first is to view it as hostile to the smooth operation you have so carefully cultivated, as an attempt, however unintended, to rock your boat. Most people are not so narrow-minded as to take this stance as a default, but it is easy to reactively move to the negative position as a means to preserve the vaunted status quo.
The second response is possibly more common and involves meeting the request with a mushy maybe, which is almost alway tantamount to saying no but tends to introduce ambiguity and misgivings into a situation. The choice of terminology, whether you say "maybe," "possibly," "we'll see," or "I'll get back to you," is irrelevant. The sentiment is always the same. Saying maybe may convey a promise of consideration, deliberation, or even hope, but it really means that you are stringing someone along in order to either have the suggestion die of neglect or to find a way to say no down the line. Just saying no may be harsh and reactionary, but saying maybe is even more often just a lie.
When starting with no or maybe is the default, it makes getting to yes nearly impossible. If that is your intent, congratulations, but habitually leading with no or maybe, will most often lead to a culture of mistrust and demoralization. You may be able to ameliorate this disfunction through other means, but you will expend a great deal of your own resources to achieve little in the end. Reactively starting with no or maybe might preserve your quantifiable resources in the short run, but over time many resources, both countable and uncountable, will attrite into oblivion.
Starting with yes requires, first, a shift in attitude and a subsequent shift in approach. Again, this is not about being a pushover. Quite the contrary. It is a strategy to empower and embolden employees in a positive and productive way while asserting and maintaining your own authority—goals that should not be anathema to any boss or organization. If you are inclined to manage people using raw authority, your impressive title, or brute force, this approach is not for you. And godspeed to your underlings. Consequently, starting with yes only works if it is a part of an overall open approach to leadership.
Starting with yes is simple. It presumes that interactions, any interactions, with employees and colleagues are opportunities for positive relationship building. It is not a naive outlook, though it may affect a naive stance, and is in fact quite canny.
In the scenario I sketched, a start-with-yes approach would open a conversation while requiring you to be fully open to the possibility of yes. Yes should be the default opener. In the conversation, you lay out all the relevant facts for your employee, who can then help you reach a decision or better understand your ultimate judgment if it is not favorable.
Here is a slightly more fleshed out scenario to consider.
Mary is Tom's supervisor. Tom has an idea on how to approach a key process more efficiently. Mary knows that the process their company uses is well established and that, while not as efficient as she would like, it works. She also knows that tinkering with that system could be politically fraught, and she is concerned about burning capital on a new idea. If Mary is a no person, then problem solved. She shoots him down, and he goes on his way. Of course, she may have just passed on a transformational idea and the personal benefit of its halo effect. Also, if saying no is her default, she risks promoting ill-will and mistrust and creating a different sort of problem. Her employees, over time, will come to resent her. They will keep their ideas to themselves. Mary will become the prime evaluator and the sole source of innovation, and, unless she is a solitary genius, progress and productivity will slow.
Let's play this out with Mary as a maybe person. This time, she tells Tom that she will take his idea under consideration. If he is new or has little experience with Mary, he may take her at her word. Inevitably, though, it will become clear that "maybe" is just a dilatory "no." If this keeps up, then Mary's maybes will have the exact same effect as saying no except that her employees will grow even more resentful that she will not level with them. See previous paragraph for consequences.
But, what if Mary is a yes person? Does she automatically give Tom the green light with no consideration? Of course not. What she will do is offer positive encouragement and understand that she now has several options. This is not a simply reactive response but is the beginning of a thoughtful process: hence, prudent positivity. One favorite possibility is to charge Tom with researching and pursuing the idea himself and even offering him modest resources as necessary without promising any particular outcome. Another option is to charge someone else or a group with studying the possibilities or doing so herself, again, without promising any particular outcome. The key here is that Mary's response must be sincerely positive while projecting shrewd discernment. She must take Tom's idea seriously and honestly pursue it without being credulous. Doing so will almost certainly require a commitment from Mary and may even constitute a burden on her or others. If Tom's idea is good, then the extra effort is worth it. If it fails, Mary and Tom will seek to learn from the failure. Either way, Mary and the organization gain from the good will Mary has generated with Tom and with others. In short order, Mary's continued benevolence will accrete and become a powerful and bountiful resource in good times and bad.
Sometimes, though, an employee's idea is just untenable on its face. Perhaps it was tried before and and did not succeed or requires resources beyond the capabilities of the organization or will trigger a political backlash in the organization. If for some good reason Tom's idea is simply a nonstarter, Mary will explain precisely why she must reject it as fully as she is able and urge him to continue to come up with more ideas. Her reputation for candor and transparency will again work to her benefit.
Certainly this approach will not be appropriate in every situation and with every employee. Organizations are human endeavors and are as imperfect as those who comprise them. The point is to create a culture of trust that originates at the top. Sometimes you may find that you will begin with a sincere yes but must end with a hard no. That is just fine so long as there is an honest analysis and a mutual understanding of the reasons behind the final decision. The point is to lead with a positive attitude toward the ideas and requests that may come your way. Do not treat them as distractions from what you perceive as your normal work or, worse still, problems to be dismissed or solved. Instead, recognize and embrace the fact that receiving employee requests is a significant part of any manager's job. It's really not as hard as many may have been led to believe and will reap dividends in innovation, productivity, and trust that you and your organization can profit from for years to come.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.