This week systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC discuss how honouring one’s work boundaries by saying no to work can enable leaders to bring out the best in themselves and mobilise the collective potential of those around them.
The stereotypical City lawyer is overworked. Indeed for some firms long hours can appear to be a right of passage and a badge of honour. But why is it that many lawyers find themselves in a position where they feel compelled to accept more work, even though doing so is harmful to their well-being and their professional performance?
There are many superficial reasons for this phenomenon. Some worry about losing the client, and helping the competition who the work may go to instead.
Some fear other people’s perceptions. Will people think that they are not committed, not capable or just lazy if they resist doing more?
Others have notions about how a “proper” lawyer is supposed to work – late nights, long hours, evenings and weekends, mastery of the detail at a moment’s notice.
The hierarchical nature of law firms and the pressures to succeed can make it seem like there are no real choices. With those kinds of notions in play, saying no to work can seem tantamount to an act of self-denial of one’s identity as a lawyer.
While we remain hostage to these kinds of thoughts, the word “can” as in “Can you take this work on?” is frequently too powerful to resist. After all, its antagonistic partner is “cannot”, and for a successful lawyer to admit that they cannot do something is asking rather a lot. It can be seen as an admission of weakness, inadequacy or failure. Not something that goes hand in hand with success.
Or does it?
The positives of no
To say no to work is to set and then honour your boundaries in the face of an attempt by another to cross them. Far from being a mark of weakness, inadequacy or denial of our professional role, saying no is in fact an act of genuine self-acknowledgement that we are perfectly fine just as we are. And by setting and respecting our boundaries at the place that is right for us, we support ourselves to be authentic – to be our best true selves – which allows our own unique strengths to engage fully in what we do.
Professionals who discover the ability to say no to work, and hence no to overwork, find a number of important benefits. First, and most obvious, is that freeing up non-work time broadens the base of our lives so that our professional persona is anchored in a wider perspective. This is important in helping deal with the ups and downs of a legal career.
Secondly, the self-acknowledgement that comes with saying “no” generates and grows self-confidence and ease with the self, which in turn makes relationships with clients, team members and colleagues more genuine and stronger. This tends to be reciprocal, generating a mutual openness and safety in relationships that tightens bonds. It brings out the best in others by creating a supportive workspace. When you are at ease with yourself, others are at ease with you, and meaningful relationships can grow and flourish.
Thirdly, greater authenticity supports the creative process. Creativity involves being able to confidently take risks, and people who are in tune with their true selves are more likely to be able to tap into their creative talents. Being a lawyer is one of the most creative jobs out there. It is this creativity – the way that the legal team has chosen to do something – that usually marks out the excellent from the good, the winners from the losers.
Fourthly, learning to say no gives greater authority to your yes. Many lawyers take on work and then worry about how to fit it in afterwards. Honouring your boundaries against overwork has the corresponding benefit of securing greater personal buy in to the work you accept. This is likely to increase your enthusiasm and performance on the task. It will also ensure that clients feel secure in the knowledge that the work is being given proper attention. Just as much as no means no, yes means yes.
Of course, if you suffer from over work, then the journey to resolving this issue may not be easy. Anyone who has struggled with over work knows that the reasons for it can seem complex; sometimes intractable. The causes are often buried deep within. Professional help is usually needed to uncover them. But with time and effort you can get there.
We live in times of upheaval. Changing times call for evolving styles of leadership. By moving away from the outmoded notion of quantity as the measure of success, and instead focusing on quality, we can create productive work environments that support excellence. By doing so, we not only bring out the best in ourselves, but we also mobilise the collective potential of those around us.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles.