Don't Let "Flexibility Just Doesn't Work for Me"="I Don't Care If You Leave"...Because It Will

Three times in the past couple of weeks I’ve heard a variation of the same story that should serve as a cautionary tale for all managers:   

  • You have a highly valued, competent current or prospective employee who has used flexibility in the past to manage his or her work+life fit in a way that considers their needs as well as the needs of their job.  They have a track record of success.
  • Said employee presents a well-thought out proposal for flexibility. They’ve covered all angles. Of the three scenarios mentioned above, one person wanted to reduce his schedule to deal with an ongoing health challenge more aggressively, with the goal of going back to full-time after he recovers.  Another individual had been promoted, and returned to a full-time role; however, she wanted the flexibility to work from home periodically.  And finally, the third person was being considered by a venture capital firm to be CEO of a company.  He wanted to telecommute two days a week as he was doing with his current job.
  • In all three cases, the response was, "No."  The initial reason given was, "I need you here."  Then the employees respectfully asked if there were any business concerns that made their plans unworkable. None of the decision-makers could cite a business-based rationale for their answer.  All they said was, "It just doesn’t work for me." 

Okay, let’s stop here for a minute.  I have seen this same scenario play out over the years more times than I can count.  To these managers, their logic makes complete sense (at least at the moment):  If I just say, "it doesn’t work for me," then everything will go back to the way it was.  Everyone will forget about any flexibility.  I don’t want change.  I like things exactly the way they are right now.  It works for me as it is. 

In fact, in an alternate universe, these managers are often giving a compliment.  They are essentially telling the employee that he or she is too valuable, therefore, they  want them around and available.  They think saying "No," will make their preferred status quo a reality. 

Unfortunately, that’s usually not what happens.  Note to managers: just because you will it, doesn’t make it so.  Fair warning, you will lose. 

What should managers do? 

  • Take proposals seriously.  If someone goes through all the trouble to create and present a plan to manage their work+life fit more flexibly, then they are serious.  If they weren’t serious, they wouldn’t do it. (I am assuming this is a solid plan, not a weak, "I need flexibility" plea without any forethought behind it.)
  • Realize that to say, "No," based solely on the rationale that, "This doesn’t work for me," is the equivalent of saying, "I don’t care if you leave."  Because that will be the outcome, either physically or mentally.

In two of the scenarios above, that’s what happened, but not before the managers panicked soon after realizing that their Jedi mind trick didn’t work.  But in all but one case it was too late. 

Even after offering two of the employees more than what they had originally proposed in terms of flexibility and compensation, they quit.  The damage had been done.  And the managers suffered more aggravation than they would have if they had said, "Yes."  In one situation, the manager lost the head count, and is having to spread the work across an already overloaded staff.  In the other case, the employee is a highly trained professional whose work will be very difficult to replicate. 

With regard to the prospective CEO who wanted to telecommute, a venture capitalist negotiating the deal happened to attend one of my presentations.  He left more open-minded to the CEO’s flex proposal because he acknowledged, "We won’t get him if we don’t consider it.  And I realize it’s worked in the past, why won’t it work for us?" 

  • Don’t need to rubber stamp "Yes," but negotiate in good faith.  Agree to try some version of the proposed plan for a trial period.  Don’t just try to will the request away. Yes, in today’s economy, managers are in the catbird seat.  It’s easy from this position of power to become lulled into thinking you can control how, when and where employees want to work.  Not always so.  Thoughtfully, and carefully consider the solid proposals for flexibility from valued staff.  If there are a valid work-related concerns to address, negotiate through them.  But to say, "No," just because it doesn’t work for you.  Trust me, in the end it isn’t going to work for you…but not in the way you think. 

What should employees do when hit with the "It just doesn’t work for me" response?

  • Remain calm (even though you may find yourself in shock) especially if you have a solid proposal, and a track record of success.  The manager is not thinking clearly.  (Here’s how to create a well-thought out flex plan Work+Life Fit in 5 Days series)
  • Don’t take it personally, and realize it may actually be a backhanded compliment.  You don’t know what's going on with the decision-maker.  Maybe he or she is overwhelmed and wants you "there" because you are so valuable to them.  Perhaps he or she is worried about something or someone completely unrelated to you and your proposal.  Try to get at what’s really going on, and use the opportunity to discuss how you can help even with more flexibility.
  • Ask for clarification because the decision-maker may not even realize what he or she has said until forced to play it back to themselves.  Probe further by saying, "Let me make sure I understand clearly, there are no business concerns underlying your unwillingness to consider my request even for a trial period. Or did I miss something?"  This gives the manager a chance to rethink their position or to perhaps share valid concerns he or she failed to articulate.
  • If the answer is still "No, because it doesn’t work for me."  Then evaluate your fall back position.  If this is the final outcome, I am very sorry for both you and your manager.  This result is so unnecessary. If you are a competent, valued employee, it’s time for you to think about your next steps.  Perhaps at this moment you are going to stay put without flexibility, but try not to let the decision effect your performance.  Your manager may come around and realize his or her error.  Or, maybe like two of the three people mentioned above, you will leave. 

Bottom line: Managers, sticking your fingers in your ears, closing your eyes and saying "La, la, la, la" when a valuable, competent current or prospective employee presents a plan for flexibility doesn’t make it go away.  Listen.  Think it through.  Voice valid business concerns.  Give it a shot with a trial period.  Work together to make it a mutually-beneficial success.  Be glad the person is around and contributing.  Because, the very real alternative even in today’s economy, is they might not be.  

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