Yes, there’s something like ‘too much’ of a good thing.
Remember the 2008 goofy Hollywood comedy, Yes Man? American actor Jim Carrey plays a rather cynical and withdrawn man who decides to embrace life after a motivational event. Fearing unlucky consequences if he says ‘no’ to everything in life, he goes on a manic ride and becomes a ‘yes’ man. He has moments of euphoria, but his wide range in activities result in him almost getting profiled as a potential threat to the country, as well as losing his love. Finally he knows what he should have done all along: Open your mind to possibilities, without taking away its ability to say no, if we need to.
In short, being a permanent ‘yes’ man isn’t sustainable, least of all at the workplace. Why do we agree so often to do things that we don’t really want to do? Why do we become ‘yes’ people?
Who is a yes person?
Doormats, brown-nosing, minions are just some of the names given to those who say ‘yes’ to everything at work.
It’s a person who always agrees to plans, ideas, or tasks, without acknowledging their own priorities first. “While some people are naturally geared towards this, many organisations knowingly or unknowingly create this ‘yes’ culture by demanding constant agreement and positivity,” says Bina Matthews, a Dubai-based career and leadership coach. They believe that it defines team spirit, and a person will embody the ‘can-do’ attitude, if they readily agree with the management.
“It is especially hard to not be a yes person in the workplace as you want to be seen as keen and ambitious and on hand to help others,” explains Charlotte Nuttall, a Dubai-based coaching, leadership and wellness expert. However, the problem is that it becomes an expectation. Your workload increases, your stress increases and your work life balance becomes a problem, as you keep going overboard to make ends meet.
The issue with this kind of overcompensating is that it drains a person of energy. You keep fighting those inner demons that constantly want you to stay in your comfort zone and say no, explains Denis Murphy, author, motivational speaker and career coach. “If there is no honest healing taking place, then this strategy for life leads to burn out,” he says. It leads to a lot of strained and inauthentic relationships, because it feeds the people pleasing behaviour.
If there is no honest healing taking place, then this strategy for life leads to burn out. It leads to a lot of strained and inauthentic relationships, because it feeds the people pleasing behaviour.
Apart from dissatisfaction and exhaustion, managers who blindly commit to unrealistic deadlines and ill-thought out projects create overloaded teams. This fuels frustration, especially when the manager has no clear motivation that they can understand. Yes men end up doing tasks they don’t want or are not equipped to handle, creating chronic stress and unhappiness at work. “They could also develop low self-esteem as they unable to share their thoughts or contribute to a discussion,” says Matthews.
Managers who blindly commit to unrealistic deadlines and ill-thought out projects create overloaded teams. This fuels frustration, especially when the manager has no clear motivation that they can understand. Yes men end up doing tasks they don’t want or are not equipped to handle, creating chronic stress and unhappiness at work.
‘It consumes you’
She was desperate to be noticed.
Thirty-five-year-old Lisa Jameson, a Canadian expat and a senior manager in a public relations firm in the UAE, remembers her days of going overboard as a ‘yes’ person. “When I joined the workforce as a journalist ten years ago, I was eager to prove myself,” she says. “I was desperate to be noticed as there was so much competition, and so I just kept pushing myself beyond my work hours. I felt that if I didn’t, people would get ahead of me,” she says. This worried desire of being left behind propelled her to take on more responsibilities than others.
Her managers were impressed, because she just agreed to do everything they requested her. “They knew that they could just ask me at any hour of the day to do something, and I did,” she says. It’s far from practical, Jameson admits. “Your work just consumes you. I was permanently on my phone during outings with friends, because I was always expecting work. It was like ‘Oh no one else on shift? Lisa will do it’. And, I did. I was even called a star employee once and that’s when I realised that I had no life,” she says.
After several years of working in different organisations, Jameson feels that she has stronger control over boundaries. “I am rather brutal now,” she laughs. “I don’t answer calls after work hours, and don’t keep trying to cover up for my colleagues by doing their work.”
"Consistently agreeing with others may also result in colleagues or superiors perceiving you as a pushover or lacking independent thought. This can potentially impact the level of respect and influence you have in the workplace," says Catherine Musa, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Aspris Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. It’s important to note that the context and culture of your workplace, as well as the specific demands of your role, can influence the extent to which being a ‘yes man’ is problematic, she adds. "Balancing agreeableness with assertiveness and expressing your own thoughts and opinions can help create a healthier and more fulfilling work environment," says Musa.
A learning curve?
Fifty-nine-year-old UAE-based journalist Hadi Khatib has a rather different approach to the subject. For her, being a yes person is not necessarily a negative thing, especially at the beginning of one’s career, or when they are promoted.
“A yes person is someone who can be trusted to execute on directives, making sure all aspects of the mission are completed to the littlest details,” she adds. This is a ‘learning process’ for the person, and this learning curve could turn them into someone more knowledgeable, and less dependent on orders or directives. “The person then becomes an initiator, and a leader, who understands how things work or don’t work. They can shift their attitude towards having a trusted advisory role with upper management,” she says. After this, they can slowly stop becoming a ‘yes person’. “They could slowly turn into a ‘let-me-think-about-it-and-will-let-you-know person’.
Khatib asserts that companies often look for a yes person, for these particular reasons. However, she acknowledges that certain leaderships don’t support opposition and demand a permanent yes person. “This is counterintuitive for any person working in this company and leads to nothing but disdain and mistrust, not to mention lack of true leadership and change,” she adds.
How do we stop ourselves from becoming a yes person?
This talk about saying ‘no’ might sound rather jarring in the midst of all the positive-centered messaging that we are often barraged with. The key is to work towards striking a balance.
“When you consider the benefits of a balanced approach, for anything ranging from health fads and diets to unconditional support to a person or cause, it begins to make sense,” explains Matthews. “Too much of anything never ends well, especially if logic and rational discussion aren’t a part of the process, as we can see in so many aspects of our daily lives,” she says.
Here are some strategies suggested by experts:
Keep a note of how often you keep agreeing to people. Journal and try to understand what stops you from saying no to them. Assess the patterns, and see why you don’t want to say no to those people. Then introspect on how you handle the situation differently. "You should identify your priorities are and then it becomes easier to say no to anything that doesn’t align with your life goals," says Musa. "It may be helpful to think of boundaries as the outward expression of self-love. This might lead to a change of attitude from some colleagues but once again think of your needs first," she says.
You should identify your priorities are and then it becomes easier to say no to anything that doesn’t align with your life goals. It may be helpful to think of boundaries as the outward expression of self-love. This might lead to a change of attitude from some colleagues but once again think of your needs first
“You will be respected more by saying no than taking on an unrealistic amount of tasks and not being able to complete them to your full potential,” says Nuttall. Pause, take a moment and ask yourself if it is really something you should be saying yes to. Let people know that you have boundaries and be clear about what responsibilities that you can take on.
If you’re a compulsive pleaser, try saying no in small ways at first. As you start saying no, you will find it easier to refuse people. Think of responses that you can use frequently; be polite, yet firm. Something like “Thank you for thinking of me, but I have too much on my plate” goes a long way. Moreover, don’t make excuses. If you can’t do something, don’t go into heavy details. If it is really too difficult, start by buying time saying things like: Can I get back to you on this in an hour? This will give you some time to reflect on the situation and prepare reasons to say no, suggests Musa.
Ask for help if you feel that you have been burdened with work. Delegate your tasks, if need be.
Give yourself a pep-talk
Don’t be hard on yourself; replace all the negative words with positive affirmations. Tell yourself that if you keep accepting all the work responsibilities, you’re damaging your own mental and physical health. It’s ugly to set boundaries at first, and someone will always be displeased, but remember that’s not on you. You are responsible for yourself.