Overcoming a Toxic “No” Culture


Much has been written on the benefits of saying “No” and how, including this simple word into your professional vocabulary, has profound effects on time management and job satisfaction. Saying “No” may benefit the individual at the cost of the team if used too often.  Understanding that controlling your schedule and happiness is the priority when saying “No,” it is also beneficial to recognize the effects refusing to assist impacts the team as a whole. Through this understanding, we can take steps to own our time without disrupting team cohesion. Organizations that develop a toxic “No” culture, where “No” becomes the default response, erode into a group of individuals, working independently, that becomes stagnant and irrelevant. Recently I took over a new leadership position on a team that was well-known for having a toxic “No” culture. This team’s default response to any and all requests was “No.” They would reject the question before even learning why the request was being made or what the impacts of not gaining the request support would have. My first priority upon arrival was to replace this culture with a supportive one and began this task with implementing a policy of the only person that could say “No” was me; everyone else on the team could say “Yes, but…” or direct the request to me for a decision. This quickly removed the rejection from our vocabulary as subordinate leaders sought to handle issues at their level as opposed to elevating them. Coupled with some minor procedural changes, the team has transitioned from their default “No” responses, and the effects have compounded across each of the other agencies we interact with. Fostering a collaborative, problem-solving approach to issues has resulted in increased trust from other teams we work with and recognition from senior leadership on performance improvements and professional pride.

Effects of Rejection

In Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together, and Others Don’t author Simon Sinek discusses how our brains have evolved over the years to keep us safe. He explains, in-depth, the effects of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and cortisol. These chemicals play a crucial role in keeping us inside our “Circle of Safety” as a functioning member of the tribe or group. Although the days of complete reliance on the tribe for survival are gone, our brain is still wired to encourage us to work together. When team members reject our ideas or issues, our body reacts as if we are in danger of being removed from our “Circle of Safety.” To warn us of pending danger, and discourage us from taking that action in the future, our body releases cortisol. In addition to raising blood pressure and glucose levels, cortisol also reduces serotonin levels and inhibits the release of oxytocin (https://www.leaneast.com/leaders-eat-last). Serotonin is also known as the leadership chemical and is responsible for rewarding the body when we perceive others like, respect, or trust us. Oxytocin is known as the love chemical and promotes feelings of love, friendship, and trust. Oxytocin allows us to feel accepted by those around us and gives a sense of security. Immediately following a blunt “No” response, without a follow-up alternative, our body releases cortisol, which blocks the release of serotonin, preventing the development of self-confidence in our problem-solving skills while reducing trust amongst team members.When we do not trust others, we are less likely to support them publicly for the risk of being taken advantage of or, worse yet, isolated from the rest of the group. When saying “No” becomes the default response within an organization, the team is doomed for failure unless a strong leader can change the culture. Erosion of trust over time, coupled with high levels of anxiety about our position within the “Tribe,” mixed with a lack of connection and safety to individuals within the group, creates a toxic culture, pitting each individual against each other rather than supporting the common goal.

Get to Yes

When presented with a request to assist with a project, task, or problem, we should be intentional in seeking to understand why the assistance is needed. By allowing ourselves to see the other person’s perspective on the issue, we may be able to come to a quick solution without absorbing additional work. Maybe the person requesting assistance is coming to us because they see us as a mentor or someone they can learn from. Perhaps the project or task they have been assigned is beyond their skill. Or, possibly, their progress has stalled due to impediments out of their control. Whatever the case is, if we do not take the time to understand their problem, we will likely miss an opportunity to become a person of influence in their life.When “No” is the default response, there is no opportunity for growth and development to occur. However, if we seek to assist them in finding alternate options, we can “Get them to yes” and send them back to work, losing a short amount of productive time. When leaders ask, “How can we get to yes” instead of “No,” they maintain, or develop trust and connection. The key here is to help the other party get to yes, not do it for them. This method of problem-solving and assistance not only benefits the person requesting aid now but also equips them to handle similar problems, on their own, in the future.When working as part of a team, we cannot allow ourselves to adopt a toxic “No” culture. Outright rejection without consideration or assistance with the problem is a sign that you work inside a toxic culture. Understanding that our bodies are still wired to operate as part of a tribe for survival sheds some light on how we should interact with those around us, especially those we lead or want to lead. By becoming aware of what our body does naturally to protect us and ensure our survival is key to developing last and meaningful connections.   The next time someone brings you a problem, avoid defaulting to “No” but instead find a way to help them get to yes.  Pay attention to the way your body feels during different encounters, and see if you can identify how your brain is perceiving that exchange. Are you being rewarded for increasing love, friendship, and trust, or are you entering a “Fight or flight” mentality?What are some ways you work within the team to avoid rejecting proposals without accepting every idea that comes your way?

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Published by dannyrtudor

Leadership Trainer and Coach

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