When people say yes . . . too often

When you approach a prospective board member who fits your organization’s needs perfectly, it’s great when he or she says yes to consider serving. It’s a thrill when a donor says yes to making a gift or bequest. It’s wonderful to know that a foundation or other funder has said yes to your proposal.

But what can you do when a staffer or volunteer . . . says yes too often?

In their book, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring out the Best in People at Their Worst,  Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirsches identify specific behavior patterns that people resort to when they feel threatened, don’t get what they want, or face undesirable circumstances. And surprisingly, “Yes People” made their list of top ten most unwanted behaviors.

First, a definition. A Yes Person is someone who:

  • Is overly concerned with pleasing others;
  • Avoids conflict and confrontation more than most;
  • Injects personal emotions and ego too often into work situations;
  • Is unrealistic about his or her own talents and capacity; and
  • Misses deadlines and often fails to deliver on other commitments.

If this behavior reminds you of someone you work with, here are a few considerations.

1. Yes People say “yes” without thinking things through. They react to the latest demands on their time by forgetting prior commitments, and over-commit until they have no time for themselves. Then they become resentful.

2. Your goal isn’t to cure this person, but to find ways to manage around and through the behavior. Your goal is to get commitments you can count on, which may involve modeling task-management strategies that you have learned.

3. Remember that they mean well. They don’t say yes to harm your nonprofit’s work. It’s an aim to please and because they have some poor task-management practices.

4. Make it safe to be honest. Make the communication environment a safe one so that the two of you can honestly examine whether promises being made in the future will be promises kept. This could be a one-time long conversation, or it may require several meetings over an extended period of time.

5. Talk honestly. If you think the Yes Person is angry or resentful about something, or believes in the excuses, whether justified in your opinion or not, encourage the person to talk it out with you. Hear him or her out, without contradicting, jumping to conclusions or taking offense.

6. As you know, a great deal of human behavior has its ancient origins in fear. What do you think your Yes Person fears most? Sadly, steadfastly continuing to be a Yes Person could make this scenario real–i.e., being let go or asked to step down–and with trust and candor, you may be able to help the person see the long-term outcome of his or her choice to behave this way, along with much more positive alternatives.

7. Help the person learn to plan. If this is a younger colleague you are mentoring, talk about a missed deadline or over-commitment that affected your organization’s success. By using a past experience as an example, you can go back together and approach the task as if it’s in the future. Suggest what could be done differently.

8. Ensure commitments. This is the same end task as with a successful meeting. At the end of the discussion, thank your Yes Person for talking the problems out with you, and define the agreement you’ve made. Make sure you follow through as well.

9. Be careful of your own wishful thinking. Remember that a “Yes” doesn’t mean it will get done. Follow up and avoid surprises. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

10. Brinkman and Kirschner explore nine other personality types in their book, including the Tank, Sniper, Know-It-All, Think-They-Know-It-All, Grenade Person, Maybe Person, Nothing Person, No Person, and Whiner. In closing, here’s a provocative thought from them that merits consideration (bold emphasis ours):

“There exist varying degrees of knowledge and ignorance in your repertoire of communication skills, with their consequent interpersonal strengths and weaknesses. As a result, you may have more difficulty with people who whine and are negative, or you may find dealing with aggressive people to be the most challenging. Passive people may frustrate you, or you may have a low tolerance for braggarts and blowhards. Likewise, you probably frustrate several people yourself . . . because everybody is somebody’s difficult person at least some of the time.”