How strategically saying ‘no’ can help fight burnout

I have trouble saying “no,” and I’m changing my ways — because it threatens my entire organization.

Sure, business is about taking risks and saying “yes” when opportunities present themselves. And at MAGNET, we certainly do that. We doubled our impact last year by creating or saving 2,400 local manufacturing jobs by saying “yes, we can help. We helped place 500 people in manufacturing careers, despite major labor shortages, by saying “yes, we can do that.” During the pandemic, when no one could get PPE, we said “yes, we can pivot” and spent six months making millions of pieces of life-saving equipment.

But despite all this success, we hit a roadblock. After 18 months of COVID and countless back-to-back impersonal Zoom meetings, the non-stop “yes” is catching up with us. Our people are tired and showing early signs of burnout, just like the 35 percent of men and 42 percent of women today who say they are burned out, according to a survey from Lean In and McKinsey & Co.

Like the pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie, our team members are saying that success doesn’t feel as sweet, and normal struggles are more draining. As the economy roared back this year, saying “yes” to too much has become a liability. Manufacturers have more work than they can handle and burnout is a driver of the Great Resignation under way now.

The solution is to strategically say “no” more often. This feels wrong to those of us programmed to do everything our customers ask, take on all business in case it’s not there tomorrow and be OK with “just one more meeting.”

But in today’s crazy world, with never-ending work, blurred work-life lines and too few people to fill roles, we must act differently. What we say “no” to is at least as important as what we say “yes” to. And the trickle-down impact is all too real. What I take on as a CEO affects my organization directly because I delegate.

My organization is filled with high achievers and, like me, they never want to say no, especially to the boss. I have learned that I don’t always fully appreciate the negative consequences of delegation (e.g., pushing off another project, late nights, etc.).

As leaders, it’s important for us to give permission for people to push back and understand the consequences of another CEO “yes.” Telling people generically to speak up hasn’t historically worked for me. It has required a different, more high-touch approach. This means regular, proactive conversations and well-placed questions to gain insight into workloads and competing priorities.

Setting the standard for what your staff says “no” to is more difficult. If you hesitate to say “no,” your staff will model your behavior. We advise our manufacturing clients to regularly say “no” to doing business with unprofitable or frustrating customers to make time for more energizing, profitable ones.

It’s time we walked that same walk.

As leaders, this means empowering our teams to find and eliminate what drains them or doesn’t provide meaningful value. I’m making a real effort to connect with all my senior leaders on this and explicitly ask them how I can support them to say “no” so we avoid collective burn-out and have more time to devote to the critical things we say “yes” to. Then I’m following up regularly to make sure we are all holding each other accountable as a leadership team and pruning our work trees with well-placed nos.

As we collectively reboot our personal and professional lives for the post-pandemic era, let’s embrace the power of “no” to help keep us healthy, happy and successful — no matter what COVID throws at us next.

Ethan Karp is president and CEO of MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network.