“N” is for (saying) No

Where are you most likely to hear the following sentence, “No, I can’t, my plate is full.”

  1. a) Thanksgiving dinner
  2. b) In an office

Most will pick “a”, as the idea of actually saying “no” at work or in other situations in our lives is unfathomable. Say ‘no” at work? Say “no” at my child’s school? Say “no” to the family? C’mon!

Ponder this for a moment: “No” is sometimes the best answer.

Why do we have such an adverse reaction to saying no? Because team players, go-to individuals, employees with “can do” attitudes, and those who get ahead never say no…or do they?

th-18Before examining “no”, let’s first look at “yes”. What can happen when we say “yes” to everything that comes our way or is asked of us? We end up agreeing to do things we:

  • Don’t have time to do
  • Don’t have the resources to do
  • Don’t want to do / don’t know how to do
  • Are given because no one else wants to do them
  • Are given because we never say no

The bullet points above can lead to stress, resentment, feeling put upon…you get the picture. Negative outcomes. No one looks or performs their best when they feel these things.

Stress and resentment make tempers short, lowers your immune system and kicks morale into th-3the basement. Such feelings can also lead to the very outcomes we try to avoid: disappointing people, avoiding the guilt that can come with saying no, not being seen as the team player/can-do person, or suffering imagined consequences.

Remember, we are talking about saying no when it is appropriate to do so. Despite your good intentions, you will not be seen as “can do” if you truly can’t deliver what is being asked or deliver it late, or have to retreat from a commitment.

th-3How can “no” be said best?

  • Say no and yes at the same time. Say no to the original request and then offer something else that will help the requestor out. What can you do? Offer an alternative: “Wanda might be able to help you. She’s great with Excel.” or “I can’t go to lunch but let’s walk to the train together tonight and you can ask your questions then.”
  • Say it without equivocation or a flurry of excuses or long explanations. Your reasons for saying no are, in the mind of the person making the request, rarely as legitimate as their request. “No, I can’t. I have plans.” “No, I can’t, I’m under a deadline.” Then stop talking! A pause on your part will often urge the other person to move on.
  • Stop volunteering for low profile, no-one-else-will-do-it assignments. It’s not your responsibility to solve someone else’s need for volunteers. Keep your hand down!

How do you know when to say no? Previous posts on this blog have talked about gaining self-awareness, pursuing goals and making plans for development. Evaluating a request by the th-7benefits it can bring you is important and strategic. If you say yes to everything hoping it will bring you visibility and/or development, you may find yourself working on a dead-end project, or swamped with commitments just when the opportunity you’ve been waiting for comes along. Remember, it is easier to say no when you have a direction / goal / strategy.

Successful people don’t say yes to everything. They have a strategy. Do you? They know time and energy are limited resources. They want to use their time and energy to best advantage. Two articles, “When to Say No in Business.” (Claire Shipman and Kathy Kay) and How to Say “No” by Saying “Yes” (Patricia Fripp) offer good questions to ask yourself when presented with a request you are ambivalent about.th-2

  • How does this request benefit me?
  • Will saying yes make a difference in my career?
  • Will I have this opportunity again?
  • How do I feel when I think of saying yes?
  • How will this affect my work/life balance?
  • Do I really want to do this?

The fear of negative career consequences may cause us to say yes to requests where no is the better answer. If we say yes because we believe “no” will have a negative impact on our career, even though we don’t have the time / skills necessary to generate the best result, think again. thSaying no can strengthen your reputation as someone who delivers or says “no” when we can’t! What career consequence will result if we come up short or late or have to pull out halfway through? Be realistic, not reactive.

What if our plates are full but we really want to do what is being requested? Again, be realistic. Are you willing to make the sacrifices necessary? Do you want to do this thing because you should or because you really want to?

Warren Buffett is quoted as saying, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” I’m not saying to go that far. I’m saying “no” can be a positive, powerful, and appropriate response.th-4

Just as you know to say no when someone tries to add another dollop of sweet potatoes to your plate at Thanksgiving, know when to say no at work. You and the work will be better for it.


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