How many times a day do you get asked to do something you don’t want to or can’t do?
You want to say no, but you say yes because you … fill in the blank here … “feel bad if you don’t,” “want to make a good impression,” “are obligated,” “figure you’re the best person for the job,” or “might as well just do it.”
But guess what: If you say yes to everything, you’re a sucker!
Duke University researchers found people take advantage of colleagues who are passionate about their work. They’ll ask you to do things they’d rather not do — say, work on a weekend, take on an unrelated task or just move mountains — because you appear to care too much.
Then you get stressed about the time, effort and strain that yes will cause on your work and personal life.
‘Just say no’: Easier said than done
Nancy Regan might have said in 1986 to “Just say no.” But it’s not as easy as that in the workplace. Every manager and most employees have to consider the advantages and consequences of no.
Look at it this way: “A considered no protects you. The right yes allows you to serve others, make a difference, collaborate successfully, and increase your influence. You want to gain a reputation for saying no at the right times for the right reasons and make every single yes really count,” says Bruce Tulgan, the author of The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done in the Harvard Business Review.
So committing to saying no to more requests also means that you’ll want to identify when it’s the right time to say yes to opportunities.
Here are five strategies to help you sort out (quickly, too, once you get a hang of it) when you need to say no, and when you need to prioritize saying yes.
1. Know the cost of saying yes
Yeses cost you time, resources, decision-making capabilities, and often times, mental well-being.
- What’s in it for me? For instance, will you advance your career, and showcase skills you want to be noticed? While some things can be done for altruistic reasons, most professional yeses should focus on professional reasons.
- Do I have the bandwidth? When you consider time, add about 20% more, considering obstacles, delays and interruptions.
- What will I have to give up to take this on? With the added time, something has to give. Consider what that will be — time for reading, resting, meeting, exercising, planning — and decide if it pays off.
2. Qualify saying no
You can often quickly determine that a no is warranted by asking a set of qualifying questions. Denham Smith offers these:
- Am I the only person who can do this?
- Will this project move me closer to achieving my top priorities and longer-term goals?
- If I don’t do this, will it matter in a week, a month or a year from now?
If the answer to any or all of these questions is no, you’re likely good to verbalize that no to the requestor.
3. Change your mindset
Now, before you actually start saying no more often, you’ll likely need to change your mindset a little. If you say yes because you “feel bad if you don’t,” “want to make a good impression,” “are obligated,” or “might as well just do it,” stop focusing on what everyone else thinks.
“Instead of worrying about whether people like you, focus on getting really, really good at what you do,” says Regina Herzlinger, the first woman to be tenured and chaired at Harvard Business School and author of Innovating in Healthcare: Creating Breakthrough Services, Products, and Business Models .
Focus more on being likable, rather than liked.
This can help.
“No matter what you’re doing, even if it’s something unpleasant like giving bad news, always smile,” she says. “Not like a fake smiley face, but always try to find a way to present things in a positive light.”
4. Say no, without saying no
Now, what used to be the hard part will come easier. Say no with diplomacy.
These three steps can help:
- Be clear with your reason. Be as specific and honest as possible. It protects your credibility and helps others understand your priorities. Say something like, “I don’t think I can meet your expectations on this, considering my current workload. If you still feel I’m the best or only person for this, we can sit down and assess my priorities and schedule.”
- Explain how your answer affects others. Without whining or blaming, point to things that would suffer more than benefit from your no. For instance, “While I wish I could be part of this, I’d have to devote several hours a week to it. My other work would suffer, and my boss and teammates would have to pick up the slack for me.”
- Reframe and redirect. Try not to leave your requestor completely stranded. Can you turn it into an opportunity for another person, time or resource? Ask the requestor: “If not me now, who else? When else? Or with what else?” This might create a viable solution — and the requestor doesn’t feel like you turned down the request.
5. Be supportive
All this being said, remember that requests — even those you end up saying no to — are means to collaborate and build relationships in the workplace. Continue to be supportive of your colleagues, bosses and employees who make requests.
“Help if you can,” says Herzlinger. “It is not only the right thing to do, but you never know who you might be able to collaborate with later on.”
Ask how things turned out and what the requestor learned, and if they’ll keep you in mind for future opportunities.