Saying No: The Skill Every Leader Needs

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Saying no at work can be uncomfortable, but also risky for women leaders. Learn how saying no effectively can help you make the best use of your time and impact your career for the better.

a finger being held up as if someone is saying no in the background with a large headshot of professor of organizational behavior, Laurie Weingart, the guest on this episode of DDI's Leadership 480 podcast on saying no at work and why it's so important for leaders

A 480 PODCAST

Saying No: The Skill Every Leader Needs

51 minutes | July 5, 2022

00:00:00 00:00

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In this episode of the Leadership 480 podcast, professor of organizational behavior, Laurie Weingart, author of "The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women's Dead-End Work," joins DDI to discuss why saying no at work is such a crucial skill for leaders, especially woman leaders. See what the latest research says about the risks women face when saying no on the job, get tips for how to say no effectively, and learn to analyze how you spend your time at work so you're doing the tasks that matter most for your career.

Beth Almes: 

Hi leaders, and welcome back to The Leadership 480 Podcast. I'm your host, Beth Almes. And today I am so excited about our topic because it's something that's so relevant and yet deeply uncomfortable for many leaders, saying no. And perhaps this is the single most important topic we've covered to date on the podcast, because this is all about how you make the best use of your time at work.

As many of our long-time listeners recall, we named this podcast after the concept that we've got eight hours a day at work, and we break that down to 480 minutes because the small actions start to add up to big impact. And one of the things we often hear is, oh, my day is so much longer than eight hours, but does it have to be? If we're really effective in what we do in the challenges ahead, can we really keep ourselves to eight hours? Should we be saying no more often?

Our guest today is Laurie Weingart, who is one of the authors of the hot new book, "The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women's Dead-End Work." She's a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business. She's also the director of CMU's Collaboration and Conflict Research Lab, focusing her work on team collaboration, conflict, and negotiation. Laurie, it's such a pleasure to welcome you to The Leadership 480 Podcast.

Laurie Weingart:               

It's great to be here, Beth. Thanks for having me.

Beth Almes:                        

So I've been reading this book avidly, hard to put it down and there are a million golden nuggets in the book. I can't get into all of them in this interview, so I do recommend if you have the chance to read this book, you should, because there are so many applicable things to our lives. But in this podcast, I want to cover both how leaders can better focus their own time and their careers as well as being more effective in how they support their teams and how they spend their time.

So let's start with the initial concept that so many of us credit our success to saying yes to everything, yes to extra hours, yes to extra assignments, yes to helping out a team member, or taking notes in a meeting. So tell me about the reverse. You were a member of the "No Club." Why did you start it and did it work?

Laurie Weingart:               

Yeah. About 12 years ago, Linda Babcock, one of my co-authors reached out to several of us to invite us to meet at Union Grill over a bottle of wine, to talk about our work. She was overwhelmed with work, working nonstop, running from meeting to meeting and didn't see an end in sight. She was getting asked to serve on committees, to do work in her profession, do a lot of extra work, and she felt bad saying no. It was a difficult situation.

And she looked at us, we were also successful women. As you point out, we all said yes to things. We did the work, we got stuff done and she figured we were facing the same challenge as she was. So she called us the, "I just can't say no club" in her initial email and invited us to meet her, and even sent a Doodle poll in that initial email because she knew we couldn't say no.

So we all said yes. We found a time. We met and we started talking about our lives, that we were all overburdened with our workload and we had to figure out what was going on. Was it a problem that we were having in terms of managing our workload, or was it something that was happening to us? So this is basically how the club started.

The end story, the end game here is that yeah, we are better at managing our workloads, but what we learned along the way is what our book is all about, it's that it's not just about women being able to say no. Women can say no, women know how to say no, but we're put in situations where we're asked repeatedly to do work that our male colleagues are not, at least to the same extent and that puts us in this bind that we need to manage both as individual leaders and as organizational leaders.

Beth Almes:                        

So when we think about the things you might say no to, I think one of the challenges is we often feel like everything we're doing is seen and that it's part of what's going to get us that next promotion. So if you agree to manage the summer internship program, your boss sees that and thinks that's great and that's going to count towards your next promotion. Or if we organize the retirement party for a colleague, everyone sees, oh, what a team player, what a great person. But that's not truly the case all the time. Some tasks are really thankless. So how do you determine what matters and what doesn't?

Laurie Weingart:               

Yeah. Early on, we made the distinction between tasks that were more or less promotable. So tasks that are promotable are tasks that are very tightly tied to what economists refer to as the currency of the organization, what the organization values. So if it's a public organization or a for-profit organization, it's about the bottom line, it's about generating revenue, value to shareholders, reducing costs, and so on. 

If you're a nonprofit, it's about things you do that advances the mission of the organization. But those tasks that you engage in that are very tightly tied to the bottom line of the organization are the ones that are going to be most promotable within your job.

When we start moving away from that, we start thinking of tasks that need to be done, these are tasks that are really important to the organization, but they don't advance your own career. So think about all the things we do that help others and help the organization, but don't help us.

So you gave some examples, like organizing an office party, or taking one for the team, taking on the low revenue client or taking on a difficult client, onboarding new employees, or being in academia, it's committee work, lots of oversight committees. All that is very important to the organization, doesn't advance a career. 

All the things we do to help one another, really important, right? Covering for someone who's out, mentoring junior colleagues, maybe even adding content to someone else's presentation, very important. Even resolving conflicts among coworkers, right? All of these things that we do.

So if we boil it all down, and this is what we did, we said, well, what makes these non-promotable? So the first is that they're not as instrumental to the organizational currency. So they don't directly generate revenue, they don't directly advance the mission, but they support the organization so that it can do so.

Number two, they're less visible. That is the work that you're doing is more behind the scenes. It's hard to equate your efforts with the work output. So it might be combined with other people or others just might not be aware of the time you're putting into it.

Or it's a task that almost anyone can do. It doesn't require the specialized skills that you were hired for. So if you're hired to, let's talk about my job as a professor, I'm hired to do research and to teach, that's what I get promoted based on. Everything else I do is less promotable and doesn't tap into many of the skills I was hired to do, that is my teaching skills and my research skills.

So that's a lot there, a lot of information, but you can use those three characteristics to look at every task you do to rate it in terms of its promotability.

Beth Almes:                        

And I think that's so interesting, the idea of rating what your work looks like and really analyzing the balance of what you're accomplishing. I think probably most of the leaders listening right now can recall times when they've had a day or a week when you've just been so busy and then when you look at the end of the day, what did you do to accomplish those goals that are on your quarterly performance goals, and it might be nothing. You had a day filled with meetings and yet your output for the day feels like it wasn't quite there. You did lots of things.

So what's the danger here, when you start to get out of balance with, you call them non-promotable tasks, or NPTs as they're called in the book? What happens when those get out of whack?

Laurie Weingart:               

Right. So we refer to this as work-work imbalance. It's a riff on the work-family balance that we all are familiar with. So thinking about the balance between your promotable work and your non-promotable work. And when you are doing more non-promotable work relative to promotable work, and also relative to your colleagues, that's when it starts causing problems, because you have less time to do the work that advances your careers by definition.

So when someone has work-work imbalance it leads to a lot of negative outcomes for the individual. Okay, so you can imagine when you have less time to spend on your promotable work, it's going to stagnate your career. You have less time to do the work that advances or that speaks to your performance evaluation and we see this happening.

But if we go beyond that, it also has negative impacts on a person's professional identity. There's one study, for example of engineers and even students of engineering, and when people were doing the work, the supportive work, the non-promotable tasks, they started questioning whether engineering was the right career for them. So there's that question of the professional identity.

My co-author, Linda Babcock, she faced that in her own job where she was doing so much committee work, she started questioning her own role as a research professor and how she spends her time and whether that was even a viable career to continue with for herself. So it has a lot of personal implications and it has a lot of professional implications.

Beth Almes:                        

I think that's such a great point for leaders, as well as they look at ... We often hear from leaders that they struggle with the time they spend doing leadership activities versus doing the work that they used to do. So you used to be an engineer, and now you're an engineering manager and depending on what's expected of you, you might be spending too much time in one area or the other, or you may even be doing all these extra activities throughout the organization that you're getting no credit for.

So I like this concept of work-work imbalance, it's one that I really haven't heard discussed a lot of analyzing what you're spending your time on when you're at work. And then of course there are people who simply just try to find the extra time, they're just putting in more.

Laurie Weingart:               

That's right. We refer to that as work overload, like many do in the industry. Work overload is a situation where you're just adding more hours to what you're already doing. And of course, we all know from many, many studies that work overload leads to stress, it leads to burnout, leads to negative physical manifestations like hypertension. And of course, then it spills over into our personal time, which interferes with our work-family balance, which interferes with our time, our downtime, which we also know is really negative for performance and productivity, health and wellbeing, and so on, so that work overload is negative.

You also made an interesting point earlier that I wanted to highlight, which is that people think that because they're asked to do a task, it must be important. And we don't make that internal assessment about what the work entails and how important it is to be done and whether you're the right person to be doing it.

We see this a lot in more junior members of firms, newer employees, because they don't yet know what counts and what doesn't count towards advancement. And so you can imagine the people who say yes to everything may not be making the best judgments in terms of how to sort through all those tasks. And then they're surprised at performance evaluation time when all that time they put into the steering committee doesn't count, it doesn't matter because it doesn't result in billable hours or the bottom line.

Beth Almes:                        

I think one of the things that struck me as I was reading this book was just this concept of whatever you say yes to is automatically meaning a no to something else. There's always a trade-off of whether it's, yes, I'll help you on this project, but it means I can't do the work that's important to me, or yes, I'll help you on this project, but I believe it was one of your co-authors of the book talked about imagining then she had to say no to her kids in taking them to the park. There's something you're saying no to almost by default as soon as you say yes to something else.

Laurie Weingart:               

We refer to this as an implicit no, that whenever you say yes to something, you're saying no to something else, because there are only so many hours in a day. So thinking about what you're giving up is key, and also recognizing that when we focus on the future, we tend to underestimate the amount of time something's going to take.

So whenever you're asked to do something and you're deciding whether to say yes or no, don't only think about what you might be giving up in the future, but think about as if it's happening tomorrow or next week, what would you have to give up to fit it in? 

Oftentimes we think, well, our calendar looks really open a month from now. Well, that's because we haven't filled in the day-to-day, but look at your calendar a week from now because likely your calendar will look the same in a month and you'll be squeezing this additional task in at that point in time.

Beth Almes:                        

So one of the things you mentioned as we were discussing work-work imbalance was that one of the key challenges, it's not that you're ever going to get rid of all of your non-promotable tasks, everybody has to do some of these, but one of the challenges is that it can be out of whack with what your colleagues are doing. 

So if everybody in the department is doing two hours a day of non-promotable tasks, fine, but when you're doing more than your colleagues, that's where you really start to see problems spike up. And in the subtitle of the book, you talk about women's dead-end tasks. Is this a problem just for women?

Laurie Weingart:               

What our research shows over and over again is that women bear a disproportionate burden of the non-promotable work as compared to their male colleagues. We see this in engineering firms, there's evidence in academia, but also TSA agents and grocery store clerks. Across the spectrum, there's evidence that women are doing more non-promotable tasks than their male colleagues.

Most of these studies are based on self-report data. So we ask people how much they're doing. Do they perceive they're doing more than their colleagues? The evidence aligns, but what we really wanted to know is, can we quantify it? Can we go into an organization and demonstrate this objectively and not just subjectively to see how this plays out?

So we went into a professional services firm, a consulting firm that keeps track of time, both billable and nonbillable hours. And they keep track not only of what's billable and non-billable, but they had subcategories of the work that was being done, so they could go in and sort or rate the different tasks based on promotability recognizing that not every non-billable hour is non-promotable, but it's much less so than time spent on client work that's directly billable.

So they tracked this over a three-year period of time and what they found was that the women consultants were doing 200 hours of non-promotable work per year more than their male colleagues.

Beth Almes:                        

Wow.

Laurie Weingart:               

200 hours, that's a month of extra work. That was surprising to them. It was surprising to us. That was a real substantial chunk of time. And of course, the question is, where is that time coming from?

A real interesting point was that it was different for the junior and the senior consultants. So the junior consultants, when you looked at the time they were spending on promotable work, the junior women were spending 250 fewer hours per year than their male colleagues at the same level doing promotable work.

They had work-work imbalance. Compared to their male colleagues, they were doing more non-promotable work and less promotable work. And so you can imagine what the career impact would have. It's really hard when it's time for promotion to partnership, path to partnership, to promote these women, because they just don't have the billable hours that their male colleagues do.

For the senior women, the story was a little different. The senior women worked the same amount of time on promotable tasks. There was no difference between them and the men. They were working overtime. Those 200 extra hours were 200 extra hours that they were putting in on their own time. So they had the work overload.

Beth Almes:                        

And I can imagine that so many senior women that you know, I often find they're so involved in so many different activities and they're mentoring others, and they're doing lots of good things and you look at the amount of work that they're doing and it's almost a superhuman effort to be doing it all.

One of the questions I had and I thought was so interesting in the book was about how some of the diversity and inclusion efforts may be having some unintended effects. How do you see that playing out?

Laurie Weingart:               

Right. So diversity equity and inclusion efforts are a non-promotable task. They're very important for the organization, but when individual people work on them, it doesn't advance their career. And what's interesting about this specific category is that yes, women are more likely to serve on these committees than men, but especially people of color. The same holds for people of color. They tend to serve on these committees. They spend a lot of time.

In fact, there's one study that demonstrated, this was in a faculty of color, we're spending three extra hours per week on this type of work and service work, and specifically DEI-related work, including mentoring junior colleagues, serving on committees, and so on than their white colleagues.

So the question is, of course, while this is again important for the organization and it's something that the people deeply care about, it doesn't advance their career. So again, it's another weight on these individuals of color who are doing this important work, but not personally benefiting from it and perhaps being hurt by it.

Beth Almes:                        

So what do you do about that? We keep hearing that you need diverse perspectives on a lot of issues, and you want to give people who are underrepresented a better voice, but you're saying also that it's putting a huge burden on them too at the same time, we're asking more and more and more of them. So how do you start to address that problem?

Laurie Weingart:               

So to address the problem of non-promotable tasks, when we overload requires you to understand the root cause of the problem, what's driving it? And I want to speak to that because that helps us think about solutions. And this was a very important point regarding the research that we did about the drivers of why women and by extension people of color are doing more of this non-promotable work.

And it all boils down to expectations, norms, and expectations. Not that women are better at doing these tasks, not that we're more qualified to do them, or that we like doing them better, but just that there's an expectation that this is the work that women should be doing, and then women internalize these expectations and actually end up volunteering more to do them as well.

So what we see in our research is that women were 48% more likely to volunteer, to do a non-promotable task than their male colleagues. They were also 45% more likely to be asked to do a non-promotable task than their male colleagues. And that was not a bad strategy because our research also showed that women were 50% more likely to say yes when they were asked. So there was this kind of shared expectation that women can do this work.

We know it's expectations and not personality or other types of different individual differences because these different rates of volunteering go away when people are in same-gender groups, so that when we're in mixed-gender groups, men and women together, the women volunteer, the men step back, they hold back, they let the women volunteer first.

When you have separate groups of men, all men and all women, the men step up, they volunteer earlier than they would've, if there was a woman in the group and the women step back a little bit. They say, "Oh, there's other women in the group so we can share the burden."

Beth Almes:                        

Wow.

Laurie Weingart:               

So we're all making these adjustments based on who's around us and that's what gave us the answer that this is built on expectations. It's built on these shared expectations. Men can volunteer, men can do non-promotable tasks and women don't always have to do them.

This doesn't directly answer your question about the DEI situation. I want to get to that as well, but I felt like we needed to talk about this foundational aspect so that when we look for solutions, like you're asking about, we understand that if this is expectation driven, then we need to change the mechanisms for how we spread around our expectations, who we ask and not rely on the person who's just more likely to say yes.

Beth Almes:                        

So, because this is built on expectations, it feels often, I think especially for women that there's a penalty for saying no. You're expected to say yes, so then what happens when I say no? I think women and women leaders often feel like there are going to be consequences. Is there a real risk that you'll be perceived as uncooperative? Did you see that happen in your research? Or if you say no, is there a good way to do it, that you're not then violating the expectations?

Laurie Weingart:               

Right. So norm expectation is real. It's absolutely real. When people violate expectations, they're viewed negatively. When they meet expectations, they're viewed more neutrally, and if they do something positive versus an expectation, they're viewed positively. So if we know that women are expected to say yes to non-promotable tasks and men are not expected to, then you can imagine what would happen, right?

A research study shows that when a man says yes to a non-promotable task, they're viewed very positively. When they say no, it's a neutral response because it doesn't violate an expectation. When women say yes to a non-promotable task, they don't get any positive evaluation, it's just neutral because they're meeting expectations, and when they say, no, they're viewed negatively. Women are viewed negatively because again, they negatively violated the expectation.

So this does happen. It's a real dynamic, and so that's why women need to be more thoughtful about how they say no in a way to avoid the potential negative evaluation and backlash for turning down a request.

Beth Almes:                        

So how do you do that? So how do you give a good no, whether it's unfair or not, that's not going to make people view you negatively?

Laurie Weingart:               

Right. So fundamental to the response is understanding and working with the other party, protecting your time as well as supporting them, because you can't just say, sorry, thanks, but no thanks.

Step one in saying no is to get information about what you're being asked to do. Think about who is asking you. What is the cost of saying no to that person? And of course what is your implicit no that you're saying no to, if you say yes to doing this task? So assess the situation.

When providing an explanation that says yes to yourself, I need to protect my time, you want to be clear and concise about your reason without giving a back door into suggesting you can do it later. So think about the reasoning. So you can explain, hey, I have a lot on my plate right now. I have a deadline coming up. I'm already doing these other tasks that you may not be aware of. My plate's really full. So you're again, explaining it.

And then the next step is to help them solve their problem. If someone comes to you with requests, they have a problem to be solved, they need something done. It doesn't mean you need to take it on yourself. So you could make a recommendation for someone else who could do the task, who actually might benefit from it. Maybe it's someone who's never done it before, who would benefit from learning the task, or maybe it's someone in another role that the task would be beneficial for that isn't beneficial for you in your role.

So an example of that is as a faculty member, I helped organize conferences, and it does make sense for a faculty member to do that. I know other faculty that could be invited, but it didn't make sense for me to do the logistics of the meeting, to think about catering and room reservations. So we suggested that someone in administrative staff could pick up and learn those tasks and it could become part of their job and make it a promotable task for them.

So that's one example of, I said, no, but I helped generate a solution that solved the problem of the person who was asking me to do it. So you're basically turning the request into a negotiation, where you're protecting your time, your own interest while helping to solve the other person's problem.

Beth Almes:                        

I think that's great. You are still effectively getting them where they need to go, they're not feeling negatively and bad about you. One of the things I had loved in the book that you had mentioned too, is asking why you were chosen for the job as well, saying, "Oh, I'm so flattered you thought of me. What made you think of me?" Or something along those lines as well of thinking about, is there something special about my skills, or was this just you went to someone, anyone to help with this?

Laurie Weingart:               

And sometimes it's someone, anyone, and other times it's because they want a woman on the committee. So you can imagine situations where you're in a field, where women are underrepresented, and this happens to people of color as well. It's referred to as cultural taxation. So it's a situation where you're a member of an underrepresented minority group, whether in this case, it's women or people of color, and the organization has a goal of having representation on all their committees. The problem is there's not enough of you to go around. So you get taxed because of the cultural group you belong to.

And what I learned to do is again, ask this question, why are you asking me? What do I bring to the table? And if it's just the fact that I have a certain set of chromosomes, I'm a female, then I politely decline. But at the same time, being very careful that they don't just go to ask another woman, because this is why just saying no doesn't solve the bigger problem. Because what we find is that when a woman says no, people just tend to go the path of least resistance and ask another woman, and so I'm just shifting the problem to someone else.

Beth Almes:                        

And obviously, you can't just say no to everything either. Sometimes you have to say yes. And the question is of all these requests that you're getting, what do you say yes to and what do you say no to? And this is an area in the book you found yourself a little more naturally good at. So how do you start to optimize your portfolio, so you're not saying no all the time and you're saying yes to the right things?

Laurie Weingart:               

So when I first joined the club, I didn't think I had a problem. I was doing all these non-promotable tasks. I was spending a lot of time, I was running around, but I didn't feel as bad about it as my colleagues did. And we spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was energized by a lot of my non-promotable tasks, but my colleagues weren't.

And what we realized was that, look, everybody needs to do non-promotable tasks, but we need to be thoughtful and careful about the ones we say yes to, not just in terms of what's best for our organization, but also what's best for us. So what I did was think about, I gravitated toward tasks that either helped me develop myself as a leader, because I was always drawn to leadership roles. I enjoyed being the person in the position to affect change, build institutions. And as a faculty member, I don't always have those opportunities, so there were some ways for me to fulfill that need.

So it not only helped me develop as a leader, but it also was personally fulfilling for me because then I also chose to be on committees and do work that met my own personal mission, that advanced my personal mission, whether it was mentoring people, developing as a leader, building institutions, whatever it was.

So another characteristic of tasks that were right for me, and we recommend for others is thinking about where you are in your career, your position, and your rank to say, "Is this the right time in my career to be doing this work?" Because if you're asked now and you can't do it, it's likely you'll get asked again, because if they need your expertise now, they're going to need your expertise later.

Is it a good return on my time spent? So will I gain some benefit in the future? We call these indirectly promotable tasks. These are tasks that help you network and meet important people or develop your skill sets for the future, even if they're not going to help you now.

I also looked for tasks that gave me a mental break from teaching and research. So these were tasks that were different, that stretched me in a different way that maybe just used a different part of my brain, gave me time to do some things that I could get some immediate feedback on as opposed to the longer-term aspects of my job.

And also, I always made sure it fit in with my current portfolio of work. So if I was going to pick up a new non-promotable task that was going to be time consuming, what was I going to shed? What was I going to get rid of? How was I going to manage that overall workload, so that I still was feeling energized by my work?

Beth Almes:                        

I think that's so powerful, the idea of optimizing your portfolio in that way. And it just reminds me so much of so many of the stories we've heard here during the pandemic of women burning out and it seems like so much of it is, it seems like there's no way out of your job without just quitting. There's so much that is snowballing, it's hard to move forward without just saying no to everything.

I've been reading some things lately about how certain non-promotable tasks are becoming an issue, because people are starting to say I won't do it anymore. For example, I saw in a higher education publication that the whole concept of a peer-reviewed study is being threatened because people just don't ... It's thankless work. You're expected to do it, but nobody is, that you do it on your own time and it requires some people volunteering and people are saying no.

So how do you think the pandemic is putting more of this into light and rewarding some of these tasks that maybe before we thought of as just taken for granted?

Laurie Weingart:               

Yeah. Yeah. I think that the example of peer review is a really interesting one because it is a non-promotable task. It's highly invisible. We don't know how much other people are doing. So this speaks to an institutional solution. It speaks to the fact that the design of the system is not transparent enough there aren't any shared expectations about who should be doing it and there's no tracking mechanism.

So everybody who's doing it is starting to feel unfairly treated and therefore ... And nobody wants to be that person who gets stuck with all the crappy tasks we used to call them. Nobody wants to be stuck with these tasks, and so they start saying no. That's a good example of a culture of inequity that can be perpetuated by non-promotable tasks and the inequitable distribution of it.

In the pandemic, more and more tasks are becoming invisible, because it used to be we could see one another in the workday. We could see what meetings people were going to. We're more likely to have those side conversations about how we're spending our time and what we're doing. So tasks that were moderately promotable then or moderately visible are completely invisible now. So that's one impact that the pandemic is having.

A countervailing pressure is that there are fewer tasks being done that support the social fabric of the organization because we're working remotely. So we're not having the birthday parties. We're not having the social gatherings, and so some of that work has fallen to the wayside. Now it's an interesting question, when we start returning to the workplace, who's going to pick up those tasks?

This is an opportunity for organizations to step back and say, "Hey, wait a minute, we don't have to have the women doing all this work again, but let's make sure everybody is doing their fair share of non-promotable work, so that we give everyone the time they need to do the work that matters more to their careers." So I think there's an opportunity here as well.

Beth Almes:                        

And I think you lead us to a very interesting point here. I mean, we've spent a lot of time talking about what do I do about my work and how do I balance my promotable and non-promotable tasks, but what about our role as leaders?

So for those leaders who are listening now the thing about a lot of these tasks is that someone has to do them, or they disappeared. In some cases like the birthday parties, maybe that's fine. And in other cases like the peer-reviewed studies, it's not fine, we need those things. So as leaders, how can we be more thoughtful about making sure the work is distributed evenly?

Laurie Weingart:               

The first step is to recognize what tasks are promotable and non-promotable, and even just begin to think about our work in terms of promotability and think about our subordinates' work in terms of promotability. And take a look at who you're asking to do tasks and how you're asking for people to pick up tasks and so on.

So being more thoughtful in terms of the current state, the current situation, that's an important first step, because if we don't have a sense of how work is getting done today it's hard to set a goal in terms of how work should be distributed tomorrow. So creating awareness is the first step.

The second step for any manager and any leader is to look at how they're distributing work and look at how the current work is distributed as well. So the current baseline, as well as the new work that comes into play. With the current workload distribution, we need to redistribute, right? It's okay as a leader to say, "I step back, we're going to take a look at what everyone's doing and move some tasks around." Thinking about is it the right job being assigned to the right role.

The second step is to think about how you distribute the work. And this is what I see most managers, their first light bulb that goes off is wait a minute, I am that person that asks for a volunteer. I am more likely to turn to the female in the group to ask them to do it because I know they'll say yes, and they do a good job, but they don't think about the repercussions of it.

So finding other mechanisms to distribute the work. Instead of asking for volunteers, take turns on tasks, set up a rotation system, draw names out of a hat, whatever it takes to get everybody into the rotation. And it doesn't have to be everyone does everything, you can think about who's good at what, or who's more comfortable doing what and just redistribute the tasks, so that it's a good fit for the individuals, but the workload is approximately equivalent.

Beth Almes:                        

One of the things I love that you mentioned earlier was a way to start thinking maybe more positively about some of these non-promotable tasks. It might be a non-promotable task for one person, but it might not be for another role. So how do we start to think more positively about these tasks, instead of just saying oh, event planning, somebody has to do it versus who might be rewarded for event planning? 

How do we say, hey, you did a great job and you are promoted because you did such a good job on event planning? As you talked about, organizing a conference where you could have done it, but that's not a good use of your time, but there might be another role in the department that it's a great use of their time and skill.

Laurie Weingart:               

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. That's a wonderful framing for how to think about the fit between tasks and jobs. The foundation of job design is to make sure the right people are doing the right tasks. We're talking about it for our own careers, we want to think about it for our subordinates as well.

So sometimes this involves shifting a job from one role to another and making it promotable. So it's not just saying here, administrator, administrative assistant, you start doing event planning, but saying event planning is now part of your job and we're going to evaluate the quality of the work and your pay and promotion will be based on it. So it needs to be incorporated into the performance evaluation. So moving into a new job and then aligning the incentives to that is key.

Another approach is to think about the array of positions that you have in your work unit. We've gone through a lot of downsizing in organizations, positions have been eliminated, but the work doesn't go away. And so many of these tasks that were associated with positions that are no longer are now being done by other people, but they're not being rewarded for doing them.

So if you're going to be eliminating positions, we need to think proactively about these jobs, who's doing it and whether they're getting rewarded for it, provided incentives to do it, and being evaluated will advance their career. And if most of that work is falling between the cracks, it's likely non-promotable and you may not be doing yourself a service because you're having people do this work in lieu of doing work that you're paying them to do, that you really need them to do, the example of, I just was in meetings all day and now I'm going to spend my evening doing my day job, because all the non-promotable work drove it up.

Beth Almes:                        

So as a leader, what happens if I don't do this well? Because I can imagine people listening and they're thinking like, yes, all well and good, I understand, it's very nice if I distribute these tasks throughout the team. However, I have so much on my own plate right now that honestly, I need the quickest path to getting things done. I know who's going to say yes.

So they might get the argument that being equitable is nice, but they might not make it a priority. So what's the danger of doing that? What's the risk to me, my team and my organization, if I don't do this well and I keep assigning non-promotable tasks in the wrong places?

Laurie Weingart:               

Yeah. Well, two points I would like to make here. One is you wouldn't be alone because, for example, a study that was recently done by McKinsey and Lean In, they found that 87% of organizations surveyed said that tasks that support other employees' wellbeing, like ensuring workloads are manageable, DEI work, they're important to the company. 87% said that they were important to the company and important to the success of the organization, but only 25% of the organizations rewarded the work. So that's a big gap, right? "Yes, this work is important," they're saying, "but no, we don't reward it." So there's an opportunity here to fix the problem and there's a business case for it.

The business case is when you have a subset of your talent pool, that's being overburdened with non-promotable work, it's a very inefficient use of that pool, and especially when this talent pool is a minority of your entire set of employees. So if 20% of the employees are doing 60% of the non-promotable tasks, it's actually pretty easy to rebalance that because you have a whole 80% of your workforce that you can redistribute the work to. So it lightens the load. It's a small load for everyone else and a big relief for those who are currently carrying the workload.

And of course when you're overburdening people with non-promotable tasks, you're going to have lower performance and productivity as a result. It results in a culture of inequity and we know that people leave their organizations when there's a lack of opportunities.

There's one survey of over 4,000 women, 70 countries, it stated that a major reason women leave their jobs is because the work is not meaningful or interesting, opportunities for advancement are limited, and the rewards for their skills and talents are lacking. You look at these, they all really tie into the promotability of work. Less promotable tasks are less meaningful or interesting. They're not all unmeaningful, they have less opportunities for advancement, and certainly you tend not to be rewarded.

So people leave and we know how costly turnover is to the organizations, especially when we're trying to generate higher levels of gender equity in higher levels of organizations. We're going to have that leaky pipeline.

Beth Almes:                        

And this is really your number one job as a leader, right? Assigning the work well on your team and to the right people and developing talent. As I was reading the book, I was thinking, this really should be priority number one, but it often actually really falls to the backburner in many cases.

Laurie Weingart:               

That's right, it does. And a big takeaway from our research and from our experience is that this is not a fix the women problem, it's a fix the organization problem. Women can say no until we're blue in the face, but we're going to keep getting asked because of these shared expectations.

The best way to solve the problem, in fact, the only way to solve the problem is for organizational leaders to change their practices, change how they're asking people to do non-promotable tasks and change who's doing them. This is a great opportunity for leaders to step back and be more intentional about how they're assigning work and who's having the opportunities to develop their skill sets and demonstrate their value add to the organization.

So what we tried to offer in the book are actionable low-cost solutions for women to navigate the situation and for organizational leaders to fix the problem. And we really hope that through both avenues, we'll be able to move to a future where we're all sharing the burden of non-promotable tasks.

Beth Almes:                        

So I could go on and on Laurie, there was so much in the book, but as we wrap up here, I do have one last question that I ask all of our guests on the show. Can you share with me a moment of leadership that changed your life for positive or negative, saying I want to do more of this or less of that?

Laurie Weingart:               

Yeah. Yeah. I think about myself as a bit of an accidental leader. On the one hand, I love the opportunity. On the other hand, I've been invited to serve in many positions. I think the moment of leadership that changed my life is when male leaders at higher levels than me invited me to serve in leadership roles that I never imagined I would be in. So they saw in me something that I did not realize was there and they gave me the opportunity to develop those skill sets.

And it certainly changed the way I thought about myself as a leader, my own capabilities, and the impact that I could have on the institution. So I was thankful for those opportunities and really tried to leverage them in a way to develop myself to meet those expectations.

Beth Almes:                        

It was the right time to say yes, huh?

Laurie Weingart:               

And my colleagues, some of them said, "Why do you want to do that? Why would you want to take those on?" Faculty members, we're sole practitioners, we do our research and we teach our courses and this was not that. And for me, it really helped me realize this is something I enjoy doing, and what was non-promotable for them was actually a promotable task for me.

Beth Almes:                         

Oh, Laurie, that was such a wonderful story. I appreciate so much your time here today on The Leadership 480 Podcast. Thank you for joining us.

Laurie Weingart:               

Thanks so much for having me, Beth. It was a pleasure.

Beth Almes:                        

And thank you to our listeners who took part of their 480 minutes today to be with us and remember to make every moment of leadership count.