Splitting Up Your Onions to Free the Frog, and Why it is Important For Leaders

Noticing the frog

The piece I wrote recently about unwittingly tolerating unacceptable behaviour from others over time –Frogs on the Boil: 3 Reasons to Take Your Leadership Temperature  –  generated a fair amount of interest and has drawn me into rich conversations. Comments were along the lines of “I can see now how I have unconsciously sanctioned what is clearly not appropriate … but how do I stop it happening in the first place?

Separating your onions

Over-helping, being too available for others, trying to protect your team members or colleagues – all these are well-intentioned but ultimately prevent you from using your talents effectively. The key to noticing the metaphorical but unnoticeable temperature rises that represent unwelcome behaviour you are tolerating, is to be clear about your boundaries. I have talked about understanding your onion sweetspot – who you are at a deep level – and how to find out what that is.

But then you have to protect your onions. One of the keys to preserving onions and to prevent bruising is to keep them cool, dry and separated. Experts recommend that you store onions in a mesh bag or nylon stocking and tie a knot between each onions so that they are not touching each other. It’s the same with establishing boundaries. Clearly defining where they are and articulating them so that you and others can see and understand them is a form of protection. It helps keep you healthy and therefore able to better meet both your needs and the needs of others.

Releasing the frog

So what  happens when you separate out the onions? How does this clearer view of boundaries empower the frog in you to get to a place of ease, where you are not worrying about the dangers of boiling water and can instead focus on being the best you can be? Here are some thoughts.

Yes can work

Although clear boundaries and saying ‘no’ are crucial, it’s perhaps wise not to get too dogmatic about it. Sometimes agreeing to a request with a plain and simple “yes“, even if on one level it might not seem very empowering, is the right thing to do. If it feels right for to you to work late, or to do a colleague a favour, then do it. The point here is about your willingness to act, that you feel you have a real choice in the matter, and that it meets your needs and fits with your priorities.  Each situation is different, but taking time to consider your options, rather than finding that you have, out of habit, agreed to something, can be energizing.

The word ‘yes’ is of course what those are making requests of us want to hear, and if you add the word ‘and’ it is possible to clarify your position more amicably. If, for example, as a new member of a leadership team you are asked to record agreed actions in a meeting, you might answer thus: “Yes, I have been the minute-taker often, and in this instance, given my experience in the topic under discussion, I would rather concentrate on generating ideas than ensuring they are actioned. Who here will take that on?

No is OK

Some may think that this statement is pretty obvious and does not need to be said. But others –  not always, but often, women leaders – do find this problematic. If you don’t learn to say ‘no’ early on in life and you have been encouraged through your upbringing and the media to conform to restrictive models of what it means to be female,  it can be challenging not to stay in the proverbial hot water and default to “yes“.  Sometimes the most appropriate response is a polite but firm and unrepentant “no,” treating the word as a complete sentence without need of  justification. It may feel uncomfortable at first, and you may need to repeat it, especially if others are not used to hearing it from you, but it does work. If you want to test it it, practice it in situations that carry lower risk, for example with friends or family.

If you believe a justification is required, although it is tempting to explain that you are not a great minute-taker or you need to leave to go to a concert, try a simple “No, thank you” or adding an ‘and’ e.g. “No, I have made other arrangements, and I would love to get involved with this on another occasion” – if that is true of course. Holding the image in your head of the space between the onions can help as you learn to resist any feelings of discomfort that can bubble up through silence.

Of course in order to create your boundaries you’ll need to be very clear on what is, and what is not, acceptable to you, perhaps a subject for another post … In the meantime reflect on what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had to say on the matter: “Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.

Questions to take you further

  • How clear are you on what you are willing, and not willing, to take on?
  • How could spacing out your onions and clarifying your boundaries free you to do your best work?
  • How could you re-frame your language to give you more control over how you respond to requests?

Find out more about the work Clare McNamara does with leaders and their teams on influence and authenticity.

© Move Ahead Global 2016

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