The Importance of Being an Effective Gatekeeper

I used to work with a guy that drove me nuts. A typical conversation:

Me: You know, I really admire how you’re able to keep your team focused on those priorities. When other people bring you work that falls outside those priorities, you do just enough to satisfy them, but without committing your team to additional work. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while and you make it look effortless.

Him: What project of yours did I say No to, that you’re so upset about?

Me: …?

I guess he didn’t understand that I was paying him a sincere complement. The ability to act as a gatekeeper for your team – and for yourself – is an important management skill. Good change agents are constantly being asked to do more than we possibly can.

The key to effective gatekeeping is saying No gracefully without the other person feeling that you are letting them down. Here are some points I’ve found helpful, whether you are gatekeeping work for an entire retail field organization, your department, or yourself.

Know Your Capacity

A few years ago, I decided that I was saying No too often, and it was restricting my opportunities; so I started saying Yes to everything. After a short time I brought it back into balance and started saying No again, but this exercise taught me to think before answering and make a conscious decision whether to say Yes or No based on the facts and merits of the opportunity that I was being offered, not just based on habit. I introduce this story as a gentle nudge for you to ask yourself, do you say automatically say No? If so, you’re not a gatekeeper, you’re a roadblock and need to get out of the way!

One way to monitor this is to measure the capacity of your resources.

If your resources are retail stores, you can use math to determine an average store’s discretionary hours and then identify on a macro and micro-level what else is impacting the stores (peak shopping days, annual reviews, peak vacation seasons when the stores may run into overtime).

Knowing your capacity is the first step towards effective gatekeeping because, if you don’t have the data, you may say Yes or No without thinking about what you’re being asked. And because you can’t have an informed conversation with the people trying to give you more work unless you have the information.

Articulate Your Priorities

Clearly stated priorities are also essential to being an effective gatekeeper for two reasons.

First, being clear on your priorities helps you manage distractions, which is essential to being your own gatekeeper. Many time management techniques recommend turning off the email alert while you’re working, to avoid interruptions and being drawn into email discussions and drawn off track by other problems.

Second, if your priorities are unclear, you risk saying No to something that you should say Yes to. For example, if you accept work that distracts from another project that supports the company’s strategic priorities, you may lose credibility.

Your priorities may also include political considerations. If your boss asks you to do something, you may have to tailor your response to account for that. And, if your priorities include building a partnership with a certain person or department, you may want to find a way to help that strengthens that relationship.

Use Basic Customer Service Techniques

Here’s a four-step process:

Step 1: Express your desire to help.

This can be as simple as saying, “I’d like to help you with that.” This isn’t a lie. Even if you don’t want to do the work, you can still have reasons for wanting to help them – even if you would never share the real reason with them, such as, “If I don’t help you, you won’t help me the next time I need something.”

Step 2: Restate their request.

For example, “If I understand you correctly, you’d like to my team to take on an urgent project that is due in an hour and needs to be flawless.” Restating helps in two ways: first, you may not have understood accurately and this gives them a chance to correct your understanding, which could change your answer; and second, when you restate it, you give them a chance to catch their own error.

Step 3: Put the request in context of capacity and state the impact on their success.

You might say, “I’m not sure if you recognize that February 17 is President’s Day. On that holiday, we have higher than usual customer traffic, which means more payroll hours will be used for cashiering and customer service, and doing discretionary tasks will cause the stores to lose sales. Because of that, I’m afraid you’ll have trouble getting the results you want.”

Step 4: Tell them what you can do for them.

What you can do depends on the person, on you, and on your situation. Maybe you can help at a later time.  Maybe you can assign someone on your team to help. Maybe you can offer to review a draft that they’ve prepared. Maybe you can refer them to someone else who wants to help. Maybe you can offer 15-30 minutes of your time to help them think through their plan and point them toward resources available to them.

Sometimes you can get creative. One time, two different departments asked us to write similar communications, each promoting a new product. Our priority was a third communication promoting hand-selling during peak periods; using their products as examples in our selling communication killed three birds with one stone.

Here’s an example that ties it all together, that I wish my (now former) contractor had used before breaking three appointments to do work earlier this spring:

“I’d like to help you by adjusting your hot water. Unfortunately, I’m tied up with two other jobs right now that I’m under deadline for. If you can wait until I finish one of the jobs in May, I can squeeze you in before I start my next job. If you don’t want to wait that long, I can recommend a great plumber who does work in this building – if you mention my name, I’m sure he’ll give you a good price.”

A great answer because the choice is mine: I can wait or I can hire someone else. The contractor saves face and doesn’t have to say the word, No, which he clearly struggles with.  (Someday I’m going to write a column called, “God Save Me from Men Who Can’t Say NO” – fellas, you know who you are!)

If You Agree to Do Something, Do It

The most important thing is that if you do agree to do something, you must do it. If it reflects one of your strategic priorities, figure out how to give it the time it deserves. If it doesn’t, figure out how much you can do to satisfice the situation – you don’t always have to do it to your full perfectionistic standards.

What if They Don’t Take No for an Answer?

Figure out ways to pre-empt this. If the person was someone that I knew didn’t like to take No for an answer – no matter how diplomatically handled – I made sure that I partnered with my VP before giving her an answer. That way, if she went over my head to him, he was prepared with the background that was causing me to say No and didn’t say Yes out of ignorance.

It also gave me a chance to make sure that he hadn’t already told her Yes, which then required him to be the one to go back to her and say No (or to tell me that my answer had to be Yes, in which case we had a discussion about priorities and/or where the additional resources would come from).

What are some of your gatekeeping techniques?

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