A new manager learns the power of no

Stop the madness! An office newbie discovers the importance of setting priorities and limits

A new manager learns the power of no
Credit: Thinkstock

You've done it! You got that big tech promotion or landed that first IT management job. And you've earned it—as a top performer and someone who's solved critical issues, you've gained noticed. Now, you're responsible for a team of employees, and your supervisor expects great things from you and from them.

Along with the new role, supervisors and executives come to you with issues and opportunities, which you take on to prove that they made the right choice in hiring you. Then, after a few weeks or months, you find yourself staying later, coming in earlier, and working weekends simply to stay on top of your workload. You're getting tired, losing focus, and stretching the limits of both you and your team. 

This happened to me.

I was a new manager in a software company, and as I quickly discovered, lots of opportunities and issues were now my problem. The general manager kept piling on the workload, presenting issues or items that clients had been complaining about or wanting.

Caught between reality and expectations

As a new manager, I was determined to do it all and show that my leadership and management skills were worth bringing me into the company, and I didn't want to say no. As noted above, I was coming in to work earlier, staying later, working weekends, and, to make matters worse, putting extra pressure on my new team, delegating to them whatever I could and trying to tackle the rest myself.

Finally, after about two months, the GM came into my office with yet another issue. I was already stretched beyond what we were capable of, and I was starting to slip on my due dates.

I looked at the GM with a worried expression. What would he say if I refused? Desperation and a mounting pile of work won over, and I said, "I'm really sorry, but our team can't take on any more until we finish what we're currently working on. Can we postpone the request or get someone else to work on it?" I paused, looking at him and bracing for the inevitable fallout.

To my surprise, the GM smiled and said, "I was wondering when you'd say no."

I was surprised by this reaction, to put it mildly. He then went on to explain that piling on work was his early lesson and test for all new managers. The reason, he said, is that one of the most difficult decisions a manager must make and must learn is when to say no to a supervisor or client. The GM learned this lesson the same way from his mentor, and he was passing on this worthwhile experience to all his new managers.

A worthwhile lesson

Yes, as a new manager—as any manager, for that matter—nights and weekends will be used to some degree to catch up on items, respond to emergencies, and get organized for the upcoming week. But that shouldn't be the norm; instead, you should be able to manage your workload so that you don't have to work every night and every weekend.

It's important to realize that successful leaders do not require their managers to accept every request. Understanding your team's limits, your own limits, and when to say no is an important lesson all new managers should learn, and they should learn it quickly. It's a win for all for managers to prioritize those requests that add the most value to the organization while keeping the workload maintainable.

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