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Morale Buster: The Silent NO

By Sarah Sims

Many of our workplaces are fraught with tension right now. We are coping with uncertain times, inconsistent leadership/local/national messaging, tenuous physical space situations, and more. Stress is high, morale may be low, and we are all under an immense amount of pressure. We have preached patience, grace, empathy and endless amounts of flexibility through all this and into the foreseeable future.

As a leader, it is exceptionally hard to balance the personal needs of our team members with the unrelenting expectations of our organizations and the beneficiaries we serve. It can feel like a lose/lose situation where we constantly have to choose the lesser of all evils. It’s a cycle that is hard for all involved.

But, a growing management issue that we are seeing in our organizations and across the workplace right now? The propensity for team members, at all levels, to be saying NO. And 99% of the time, they are saying this without even uttering the actual word. This behavior and mentality is doing great harm to our shops. The Silent NO has always existed, but employees seem more comfortable acting out in these ways recently. Sometimes team members are aware they are doing it—it’s an outward sign of being unhappy or unsettled in their position and this should be proactively addressed by managers. But in most cases, individuals are completely unaware they are exuding this silent obstructionism.

In a time that we are all being asked to do MORE, or to do things DIFFERENTLY, or to PIVOT what feels like every day, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable and uneasy. But how we deal with this discomfort is the way in which we will be viewed, valued, respected, appreciated, and likely even rewarded by our leadership and organizations. It’s imperative that we can identify when this is happening, in ourselves and in our teams, and manage through it to a positive and productive space. The silent NO is a relationship and team deal breaker.

How are we silently saying NO?

  • Body Language: Be aware of your body language when interacting with teammates and your manager. Ensure that you remain open, receptive, your emotions are not on display, and that professionalism reigns supreme. If you are physically closed off, refuse to turn your camera on during a Zoom meeting, display emotional reactions when asked to do something – these are all signs that are resisting something or someone. You can often determine an employee’s level of engagement and receptivity far better through body language than spoken word.

  • Procrastination: If you keep pushing off a request of your manager, jumping into a new project, or require several prompts or reminders to get something accomplished, you are clearly telling your manager NO. There may be perfectly good reasons why you are delaying, but if you aren’t actively communicating those reasons and trying to solve them so that you can move forward, your manager will likely feel a great sense of frustration due to the lack of progress. It’s not a manager’s responsibility to keep your projects moving – it’s yours. Don’t wait for your manager to ask for a status update. Don’t wait for your meeting that is still a week away to ask questions. Don’t tell your manager you couldn’t do something because someone else didn’t reply to you. Instead, take ownership, ask the questions, and push forward even when uncomfortable. When we become stagnant, our organizations become stagnant and everyone loses.

  • Delegation: With the remote nature of our offices in the past year, there is automatically less structured environments and increased blurry lines. We have seen a rise in what could be termed “over-delegation” by employees who oversee other staff members. When there is a task we don’t want to do, don’t feel we have the right expertise, falls outside of our comfort zones, or generally doesn’t interest or motivate us, there can be a tendency to delegate this to another team member. This act, especially when done repeatedly, sends a clear message to your leadership that you are not interested in the job that you have. It says you feel that there are tasks worthy of your attention and the others can be done by someone else – it essentially categorizes you as a non-team player.

There are dozens of other examples of the ways in which staff members may be silently saying NO in the workplace. Sometimes they are big and obvious (rolling eyes, sighs, openly pushing back on assignments), but most often, they are micro-moments throughout the day. I encourage all team members to watch for these moments and actively manage when the opportunity arises. This is the type of behavior that erodes team morale (which is already tenuous) and makes the job of our managers even more challenging in the current environment. And as shared, most teammates don’t even realize it is being read this way – everyone needs a lesson in self-awareness once in a while!


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