When to Say No as a Jewish Leader

October 25, 2016Dr. Erica Brown

The URJ’s Leadership Institute presents a Scholar Series on Leadership, in which three experts each lead a virtual discussion about values-based leadership. The series began with Harry Kraemer’s session about becoming a values-based leader. The second scholar is Dr. Erica Brown. Here, she offers a sneak peek into her session.

In my office is a decorative picture with the words “Become a possibilitarean.” The idea that we “dwell in possibility,” as Emily Dickinson once said, makes life and leadership exciting. Experimentation and innovation invite possibility, and one word seems to extend that invitation and respond to it best: Y-E-S.

Many professionals and volunteers in the Jewish nonprofit world suffer from leadership fatigue. One of the chief symptoms and causes of this problem is the same three-letter word: Y-E-S.

Many of us want to please. We want to be loved. We want to be the kind of people who say yes when asked. After all, we enter Jewish organizational life as professionals or volunteers in order to serve, and we serve when we say yes.

But when we say yes too many times and to too many responsibilities, we may find our energy and capacity dangerously thin. Instead of creating possibilities, we may compromise our ability to lead and influence others. Burn-out awaits.

“Yes” can open up – and “yes” can shut down.

Are you saying yes when you really want to say no? The pressure to conform, comply, or contribute often steers well-meaning but overcommitted individuals to say what they don’t really mean. It reminds me of a particularly prescient and short expression in the Talmud: "Rabbi Yohanan says, ‘There is a yes that is like a no and a no that is like a yes.’” (BT Bava Kamma 93a). It’s best to make sure you know what you're saying.

If you’re a fundraiser or a recruiter, you live for a yes – and there’s a way to expedite that answer. Professors N. Gueguen and A. Pascual conducted a study of what it took to get people on the street to give a charitable donation. The average rate of success was 10%, but when subjects were told they were free to accept or refuse, a striking 47.5% complied.

Asking alone is insufficient. What helped get people to “yes” was the possibility of and personal freedom to say “no.”

Five years later, the same researchers used a similar technique to find out the increased likelihood of people completing a survey if they had an opt-out clause. Not surprisingly, it worked again. This kind of language set up an exchange dynamic where the kindness of giving someone a choice was repaid, if you will, with the participant giving a positive answer. Giving someone else a choice, in other words, feels empowering and is often rewarded with an affirmation.

Giving someone a get-out clause may be a technique we need to more readily apply in the world of Jewish organizational life.

The sense of choice it creates allows people to enter into leadership roles with greater consensuality. It also gives leaders the chance to say no. There will always be guilt attached to saying no, but perhaps it’s time to reassess that guilt.

Many of the people who ask us to get involved, to give money, and to come to another meeting are not doing it because it is to our advantage but because it’s to theirs. This usually doesn’t enhance our leadership sphere of influence; it diminishes it.

Here are seven questions to ask yourself when considering a leadership role:

  1. Am I saying yes to satisfy myself or to satisfy someone else?
  2. Is there anyone else who can do this more efficiently, more capably, or more willingly?
  3. Am I uniquely situated and positioned for this role?
  4. Will this role grow my talent and/or give me needed experience and skills?
  5. Will saying yes help me better achieve my own leadership goals?
  6. Is now the right time in my life to say yes?
  7. Will I eventually resent my yes?

If saying no is still difficult, find a verbal narrative that helps you say it gracefully – namely by mentioning but bypassing yes, for example, “I’d love to take this on some day, but now is not the right time for me” or “I’m really engaged in a leadership project that is important to me, so I can’t say yes to you right now” or “I think so-and-so is a better fit for this opportunity.”

Say yes to too many people or responsibilities and you’ll find that what you really care about is not getting enough time and space to live and grow.

My most important piece of advice to leaders: Say no to say a bigger yes. That bigger yes will better grow your passion and compassion.

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at George Washington University and the director of its new Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership. Erica is the author of 11 books and writes a weekly Torah blog at ericabrown.com.

To learn more about this topic, register now for Dr. Erica Brown’s online scholar session "When to Say ‘Yes’ and When to Say ‘No’ as a Jewish Leader," Wednesday, November 30th, at 8 p.m. EDT.

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