When Workers Just Say No

Experts say the labor shortage has emboldened employees to push back on projects. How managers should handle an awkward situation.

When the manager emailed Sue with an assignment, Sue didn’t answer for a full day. Finally, she emailed back. “Thank you for thinking of me,” she wrote, “but I’m overloaded, and I’d prefer you ask someone else.” The manager was stupefied. After all, Sue’s job description does include completing assignments.

Sue’s resistance exemplifies the latest shift in worker attitudes spurred by The Great Resignation. Experts say a growing number of workers feel empowered to decline the work requests of bosses, or to push back on assignments with questions like, “Why are we doing this?” And why shouldn’t they? Twenty percent of employees plan to leave their jobs this year, according to one survey, meaning that many people have little incentive to do a job they dislike when they can simply find another. This development is forcing supervisors to reconsider their management styles, especially when passing on unpopular company policies. “We’ve always thought of managers as funnels from executives to employees,” says Bradford Frank, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. “But if they believe it should change, they have responsibility to turn around and push back before ever bringing it to employees.”

Employees have long questioned the assignments they’re given; some workers will always find policies and projects to be uninspiring or nonsensical and will grumble accordingly. The change, experts say, is that workers feel increasingly free to express their perspectives to bosses. Those workers know full well that there are some 11 million open jobs in the US. “Employees are much more empowered to speak up,” says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice. “They increasingly perceive the employer-employee dynamic as one of parity.” He says that this misperception puts managers in a position of listening more than ever, and trying to find constructive solutions with the same relationship-of-equals approach one might use with a neighbor, such as asking questions like, “What would you do if you were me?”

Impatience further fuels employee-boss conflicts. After two years of office employees working from home, many managers want to get them back in the office ASAP, to revive company culture. “These new policies will be a slower go,” says Cathleen Beetel, vice president of client services at Korn Ferry. “Psychologically, people need to get comfortable with the change of pace after years of growing accustomed to another lifestyle.”

Experts suggest taking a page from the hospitality-industry playbook, in which managers are trained to handle disobedient customers. “It’s all about de-escalation,” says Radhika Papandreou, sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Travel, Hospitality and Leisure practice. “The manager does not want to create even more conflict.” Instead, experts suggest approaching the matter broadly, as a conversation about how Sue and her boss can work together. If Sue assumes that she can decline work, and her boss assumes he can just tell her to carry out tasks, de-escalation also means managers delegating to the person best trained to enforce a policy. For example, if a worker resists a mask policy, his manager is probably not best equipped to enforce it. Instead, a visit from the chief medical officer might help the team understand why masks are important for COVID safety, just as a chief operations officer or CHRO might effectively explain why being in the office three days a week is important for company culture.

Experts advise emphasizing the “why.” “Connect the dots for employees,” says Elise Freedman, Workforce Transformation practice leader at Korn Ferry. “The project shouldn’t just be a box to check.” Is Sue being asked to do a project because there’s no one else available, or because it leverages her skillset and will help advance her career? And if there’s no personal benefit to Sue, how does the project help the team and the business, and what revenue is it connected to? Experts say that employees are keen on finding meaning in assignments; explicating that meaning for them is a win-win. “Everyone’s trying to get a better line of sight to the ‘why,’” says Linda Hyman, executive vice president of global human resources at Korn Ferry. Yes, the outcome to clients, business groups, and shareholders matters. “But it has to be meaningful to the person doing the work,” she says.