How To Communicate With A Colleague Who Says 'Yes' But Means 'No'
Updated: Mar 27
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Picture this: A colleague says they will follow through on a project, but they don’t. Another co-worker says they’ll hit a certain deadline, but they don’t. This lack of follow-through likely leaves you feeling frustrated.
I often refer to instances such as these as "yes, buts" — a phrase to describe when a colleague agrees to a task but doesn't complete it. Two clients I recently worked with struggled with this very situation: One leader was experiencing a chronic case of “yes, buts” from a partner, whose organization was critical to the success of their product. In another instance, one of my clients was working with a remote employee who never said, "no," but consistently missed deadlines.
There are many reasons to keep your word, especially in a professional setting where you could jeopardize your career if a colleague believes you can’t be trusted. So what’s happening?
I believe there are a few reasons people might say "yes" but end up not following through on a commitment:
First, your colleague might be a bit of a people-pleaser. Those who are highly agreeable deeply value getting along with others and often have a hard time saying something that could potentially upset another person. As described in the Harvard Business Review, "agreeableness" refers to "the extent to which you value getting along with others," as well as "the degree to which you are willing to be critical of others." If your colleague is highly agreeable, they might say, "yes," in the moment, but then keep kicking the project down the road to buy time; they're avoiding directly saying that they can’t or don’t want to complete the task.
In some cases, there could be cultural differences at play. For example, there could be a language barrier, or some cultures tend to be a bit more subtle in how they say "no," which could lead to confusion on both ends. If you don’t understand the nuances of these cultures and your employees' communication styles, you might misinterpret their meaning.
Finally, I've observed that there are sometimes colleagues who — rather than saying, "no" — will passively resist you and your request through indirect behaviors, such as procrastination, forgetfulness and purposeful inefficiency.
Reasons aside, what should you do when faced with a “yes, but” colleague?
Don't take it personally.
It’s natural to feel let down and even hurt when someone gives you the “yes, but” routine, but try not to take it personally. Remind yourself that you are both different, which means your priorities also differ. What other people say and do reflects far more on them than on you.
Rule out any possible cultural factors.
The leader I mentioned earlier who was struggling with a remote employee soon recognized there might be cultural differences at play. So, she began to play the role of devil’s advocate for all discussions in her team meetings so that she could see everything from different perspectives. By taking a leading role in laying out both sides of an issue, she found that all members of the team – especially the less assertive ones and the individual missing deadlines -- seemed to feel more comfortable sharing their views and engaging in a robust discussion of what really was possible and not possible.
If you are working across cultures, you should always consider differences in communication styles, such as the possibility that "no" might be communicated in a way that varies from your own style. As well, try to see things from their point of view.
Be clear with your requests.
Effective requests result in shared understanding and a committed "yes," while sloppy requests often lead only to misunderstanding, resentment and poor results.
As explained by language expert and author Chalmers Brothers, an effective request has specific qualities: First, ensure the other person is actually attending to you. Making a drive-by request while they are in the middle of something else isn’t likely to produce the outcome you are looking for. Then, you need to specify to that person what you are asking them to do, the standards to which you want it done, the deadline and the broader context for the request.
We often assume what is obvious to us is also obvious to someone else, but these assumptions can lead to misunderstanding. To help ensure alignment, ask your colleague to repeat back to you their understanding of your request, establish what they are specifically agreeing to, and set a timeframe to help ensure alignment.
Upon reflection on how he was communicating, one of the leaders I mentioned earlier realized he was guilty of sloppy requests. Under the stress of a heavy workload and tight timeframes, he often skipped providing context for his request and assumed the importance of it was obvious to his partner. He also often asked for things "ASAP" versus specifying the necessary timeframe. After practicing intentional, clear and specific requests, he was able to improve outcomes and develop a better relationship with his partner.
Don't put the other person on the spot.
If you pushed too hard or made the other person feel obligated to say "yes," it might be that they gave you lip service to appease you. It’s important to be mindful of the tone of your request and notice its impact on the other person — and adjust your communication as necessary.
If all else fails, consider moving on.
If this is the second or third “yes, but,” it might be time for you to try to move on and find someone else you can work with. Before you do, make sure you have honestly evaluated the quality and effectiveness of your communication. For example, you might want to ask your peers about their observations of your communication and the other person's reliability. If you've addressed all of the aforementioned factors and are dealing with a chronic "yes, but" person, you might need to look for someone else you can always count on.