THE POWER OF NO
One simple word that can change the trajectory of your organization, career and well-being
Saying no is vital to both your success and the success of your organization. While it may be awkward and uncomfortable at first, the ability to say no is empowering.
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
Ding. The cell phone alert interrupts Sarah’s train of thought for the tenth time in the last hour. A glance at her device reveals the message is from her colleague Noah. He’s begging for help on a major proposal that is due tomorrow. Without hesitation, Sarah responds with a thumbs-up. But seconds after hitting send, reality sets in, and Sarah is over-whelmed with regret. Already behind on her own work, helping Noah will put her deeper in the weeds.
Why we say yes when we really want to say no
Sarah’s not alone. The discomfort she feels in saying no is as common among seasoned professionals as it is for people early on in their careers. The word no does not come easily to us. Our default response tends to be yes, and for good reasons, including:
- We don’t want to disappoint others. The people-pleasing instinct is prevalent at work, given the time we spend there and our need to feel connected to our colleagues. We all want to feel valued and respected by our teammates. When we say yes to someone and receive their appreciation, dopamine (the feel-good hormone) is immediately released in our brain. People worry that if they say no, they may offend a co-worker and risk damaging the relationship. In team-oriented cultures, saying no can feel like you’re violating workplace norms.
- Fear of missing out. We have this nagging feeling that if we say no, we may miss out. What if this project will advance my career or help me make inroads with an organization I’ve been targeting? What if I don’t get this chance again? We say yes because you never know where an opportunity may lead.
- Reluctant to turn down responsibility. We’re always looking to prove ourselves, especially when starting a new job or moving into a new role. And refusing responsibility can feel like taking a step backwards.
- Damage to our reputation. No one wants to be known as the person who always says no. Because after a while, people stop including you and asking you for things.
- The pressure of hierarchy. While work cultures are becoming less hierarchical, the concept of hierarchy is so deeply ingrained into our psychology that we have an innate need to say yes to those we perceive as higher up than us.
- The need to be needed. All too often, we measure our worth based on the amount of work we do rather than the value of the outcomes we produce. The more we say yes, and the more work we take on, the better we feel about ourselves.
Why you need to say no more frequently
When our default answer is yes, we give up control and allow someone else to dictate our priorities. Instead of playing offense and choosing what we’ll focus on, we’re playing defense. What typically happens is the important work that moves the organization forward and bolsters our own careers is sacrificed for someone else’s urgent need. We end the week feeling exhausted and ineffective, wondering why we’ve been so busy yet failed to accomplish our priorities.
Always pitching in and agreeing to work on too many projects leaves us stretched thin and stressed. Inevitably we disappoint someone by delivering less than promised. If this happens too often, we risk ending up with a reputation for being nice but unreliable.
There is a limit to our bandwidth, and most of us overestimate it. That’s because we underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks. This is known as planning fallacy—a cognitive bias that leads us to consistently underestimate timelines, despite knowing that similar tasks have taken longer in the past. As a result, we can keep adding things to our plate without subtracting.
We seldom stop to consider that when we say yes to one thing we’re saying no to something else. So, whether it’s canceling that long weekend trip we’ve been looking forward to or doing deep work on a high-value strategic project, something is sacrificed.
When to say no
Billionaire Warren Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, says, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” The important word here is “almost.”
Deciding when to say no becomes much easier when we remember that time is our most precious asset, and then choose how we use it with intention. Before responding with an immediate yes, stop and ask these five questions:
- Does it align with my goals and priorities?
- Does it align with the organization’s priorities?
- What is the cost to me and the organization of saying yes?
- Does it benefit me (e.g., an opportunity to learn or demonstrate a skill)?
- Do I have the bandwidth?
Pausing and considering the opportunity and potential cost will help you make smarter decisions about how to invest your time.
Saying no without burning bridges
Saying no is vital to both your success and the success of your organization. While it may be awkward and uncomfortable at first, the ability to say no is empowering. When used with skill and diplomacy, we earn the respect of our colleagues and ultimately forge stronger, deeper relationships.
Here’s how to say no without damaging relationships:
Be gracious but firm. People commonly hesitate to say no because they’re afraid of coming off as rude. It’s possible to decline a request and still be polite. The trick is how you say it. Keep your tone neutral, watch your body language, and don’t make the person feel guilty for asking. Avoid an abrupt no, grimacing, eye rolls, crossed arms, heavy sighing, or moaning about how busy you are. Be polite, friendly but firm. While it’s crucial to convey empathy for the person’s situation, resist the temptation to soften your no. When a no is delivered with reluctance, a sheepish expression or too much empathy, people can get the impression that they can change your mind. This encourages your colleague to keep pushing or walk away with the false hope you’ll reconsider.
Be straightforward. People often give disingenuous reasons for saying no and hold back on why they’re really saying no. Limit colleagues’ frustrations by being candid about why you’re saying no. It can help to prepare a few responses in advance. For example, if you’re not the right person for the job, say, “I appreciate you thinking of me but I’m not the right person for the skills you need. That’s not my area of expertise.” If you don’t have the time, say, “We’re down two employees in my department and we’re all working overtime. If I took on this project, I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it needs and my other work would suffer.”
Look for a way you can help. To maintain good relationships, sometimes it’s necessary to find a way to help. While you may not be able to take on the complete task, there may be small ways in which you can help. For example, agree to be a sounding board, offer ideas on resources or read the first draft.
If you can’t say no, negotiate. Sometimes a flat no is impossible. Your partner’s back is to the wall and he desperately needs your help. In this case, respond with, “I really need to say no; I have a commitment at my son’s school tonight that I cannot miss.” Offer a compromise such as, “I could stay until 7:30 p.m. or I’d be happy to come in early tomorrow morning. Would that help?” Let’s say your manager is pushing you to take on another assignment and you know you don’t have the bandwidth. Answer, “I’d love to take that project on; it sounds like a good learning opportunity.” Then list the other priority items on your plate and ask your manager which one of those can be taken off your plate or delayed so you can handle the new project. Most managers are skilled at trading one priority for another when they know they need to choose. When you negotiate, you at least maintain some control over the situation.
Pay attention to workplace optics. If you’ve told a colleague you’re too swamped with work to help, be careful about being seen chatting and laughing with co-workers in the breakroom, leaving the office early or spending a long time on personal phone calls. You’ll lose all credibility.
Build your comfort level. Saying no with confidence, clarity and kindness takes practice. The more you do it, the more adept you will become. Begin by saying no in circumstances where the stakes are low, then work your way up to more challenging situations.
Worth the risk
Manage your expectations. That means being prepared for pushback. While you can influence how others react, you can’t control their reaction. No matter how tactfully and politely you say no, some people will be unhappy with you. Don’t read too much into the person’s initial reaction, take it personally or assume you’ve ruined a relationship. Your professional colleagues will respect your boundaries and admire your ability to set them.
When you master the skill of turning people down, you gain the power to sustain your well-being and effectiveness over time and stay focused on what matters most to you.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.