27. Just Say No(t My Accountability)

This page is part of the Holacracy Habits series.

Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. Where I end and someone else begins. Knowing my boundaries gives me freedom because I know what I’m responsible for and, equally important, what I’m not responsible for.

A good boundary lets the good in and keeps the bad out. This applies equally to your body, your home, and your roles.

The habit of asking yourself “Does my role care?” is really about maintaining healthy boundaries between personal interests, role interests, and the interests of the company as a whole.

Understood this way, boundaries aren’t walls. They are flexible. Permeable. Boundaries are doors. And doors, by definition, connect as well as protect.

And while physical property lines are visible, our interpersonal and role boundaries are usually less clear. In fact, the only way we can consistently and effectively maintain those boundaries is through our words, especially words like “yes,” or “no,” or “I will accept that project,” or “I'm not accountable for that.” These words communicate our property lines and what is acceptable (i.e. fits inside our definition of the relationship) and what isn't.

This is why GlassFrog is so important. It's not just a place to define role and circle boundaries, it's also what allows us to reinforce them.

Of course, it's easy to imagine a world in which we wouldn’t have to do this. Every request would clearly state the roles (i.e. boundaries) involved: “In your Designer role you have an accountability for ‘Designing visuals for presentations,’ and I need a new diagram for my slides. Will you take that project?” Or they just wouldn’t bother us with the request in the first place.

But reality is messy.

No one looks in GlassFrog every time they need something.

We all know sometimes it’s easier to just throw something out and see what sticks.

This is why asking yourself “Does my role care?” is key. We can't expect others to automatically know our boundaries in advance. And we can't appropriately reinforce our boundaries (personal or role) if we don’t know what they are. But knowing a request falls outside your role (meaning it doesn't fit within the role's purpose either) and having the courage to tell someone, “Not my accountability,” are two different things. Especially, if the person is a friend or former boss.

Saying “no” can feel uncomfortable. Especially given that people who say, “Hey, not my job,” are judged as lazy or entitled.

It makes sense. This prejudice against saying “not my job” is reasonable in a conventional system in which static job descriptions can’t possibly keep up with real expectations.

In those contexts, we expect others to step up and help out. That's being a good team player. But with experienced Holacracy-powered companies, telling someone, “That's not my accountability,” is understood as a healthy way to protect a boundary. It’s not a sign of rejection or disobedience.

Hearing “no” gives me the chance to clarify boundaries, or find alternative routes, or discover that the boundaries themselves need to be redrawn. Getting good at hearing “no” is just as important as saying it. A good “no” is like a sign saying “road closed ahead”. It helps others. They have many pathways to solve their tension, and if they want to discuss it further, trust them to let you know.

That's the thing about boundaries. They give everyone more freedom. I know where my responsibilities begin and end. And I can trust you'll beep your horn if I accidentally drift into your lane. As common as it is, saying “yes” because you're uncomfortable saying “no” isn't a kindness. It's letting the other person drive off a cliff because you didn't want to say, “Slow down, cliff ahead!”

Will everyone love you for telling them “not my accountability”?

Of course not. Old habits die hard. Managing boundaries is a lifelong practice. And some are better at clarifying boundaries than others. So, there is no need to be a jerk about saying “no”. Do what feels natural. “Sorry, that doesn't fit my role, but you might try Marketing instead,” clarifies your boundary just as well.

Also remember, if there is a disagreement about interpretation, then you can always ask the Secretary for a temporary ruling until it gets squared away in governance.