After I’d gotten upset at an office party this summer, my trusted colleague and friend, Nikki pulled me aside and said something I’d always known but been unwilling to admit.
“Laura, why do think all of the interns flock to you whenever they need something?” she asked. “You don’t recognize your value. You say ‘yes’ to the demands of others whether or not you don’t have the bandwidth to help.”
She was right. Because I’d spent nearly a year wondering how a shy, soft-spoken individual like me could land her dream job in DC, I thought I needed to do everything in my power to show everyone I’d earned that position, even if it meant working far beyond my capacity, covering weekends, pulling the weight of others, skipping lunches, and, as perceptive Nikki pointed out, not drinking enough water so I wouldn’t waste any of my work time in the restroom.
To be the best employee possible, I believed, I had to be willing to do everything asked of me. Though I didn’t realize it right away, taking this approach gave others the impression that I was a doormat, a reputation I hadn’t spent four years of college working towards. My parents raised me to fight for what I want, so why was I incapable of saying no to a single task tossed in my direction?
Because, ladies and gentlemen, “no” can be a terrifying word.
“‘No’ may be the most powerful word in the language, but it’s also potentially the most destructive, which is why it’s hard to say,” said William Ury, director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard University and author of the book, The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. “To say yes to the right things…you have to say no to a lot of other things.”
Easier said than done. There comes a point, however, where “no” must be embraced. Once I became overwhelmed with the work duties I’d taken on — some of which did nothing for my personal or professional development — I allowed myself to draw the line and incorporate “no” into my vocabulary. Sure I felt a little guilty, especially because I also had an unconscious desire to be liked by all, but declining others let me focus on improving my writing and editing skills, which landed me my job to begin with.
Beyond simply feeling overwhelmed by an inability to reject the demands of your coworkers or superiors, it’s important to frame the concept in terms of prioritizing your efforts and focusing on skill development that is crucial to your career in the long term. If you’re a full-time analyst, but find yourself pulled into tasks that aren’t related to analytics, you might well ask yourself whether those tasks are ones that will help develop you for your next role (at your current firm or elsewhere) or if they’re taking away from that development.
Especially if your job involves doing favors for coworkers, make sure that the majority of the time you commit to those favors is devoted to tasks that promote your development as opposed to taking away from time you could be spending developing your skills.
Saying “no” in a culture of results
I live and work in the most competitive city in the world. I have, though, realized over time that my skills were suffering from constantly giving others a hand. On the surface, doing more than the bare minimum and saying “yes” all the time seems like a decent way to get ahead in New York City, as the unemployment rate has remained steady at 9 percent the past year and beggers can’t exactly be choosers in this economy, so it’s easy to understand how a young, impressionable twenty-something like me could get hung up on people pleasing at work.
Because I adore Jim Carrey’s outrageous slapstick humor, his 2008 comedy, “Yes Man” uplifted my spirits and gave me a good laugh when I saw it in college. Soon after I left the movie theater, though, the concept behind the film made me feel pretty lousy. It promotes saying “yes” to everything and everyone. And while trying new things can be rewarding, it can also make you spread yourself too thin and possibly undermine the importance of each thing on your plate.
“I Don’t Know How She Does It,” the atrocious Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com that pervaded theaters a few months back, was probably one of the most least-lauded films ever created, but makes a case about the cons of trying to do everything. Parker’s character portrays an urban mother who aspires to have a thriving finance career, prove she’s just as devoted a parent as the showy PTA moms at her daughter’s school, and have the perfect marriage. Naturally, she ends up selling herself short in all three areas of her life as a direct result of trying to make everybody happy. It’s only when she finally says “no” to her boss that she restores the tight knit relationship she has with her family and gains more respect at work.
How saying “yes” to everyone hurts you
When you are new to a company or attempting to work your way up on the food chain, you may be more inclined to over-extend yourself or take on all the tasks given to you. You might be displaying an investment towards the organization, but are ultimately harming yourself and everyone else by accepting more than you can handle.
“You try to please everyone, and in the process you please no one,” Vicki Lynn, vice president for research and consulting at jobs site Vault.com, told Forbes last year. “Everyone wonders, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, said during a 1997 Q&A session that there’s a misconception about focus being about saying “yes.”
“The hardest thing…when you think about focusing, you think, well yes, focusing is about saying ‘yes,’ no,” Jobs said. “Focusing is about saying ‘no’…And you’ve got to say ‘no.’”
At the office, I sometimes make multiple commitments to people of different departments. From time to time, I let a request from one of my supervisors fall through the cracks. Though it’s evident that I’m doing a lot, nothing excuses making broken promises, not even being the “yes” girl. When you do this, you run the risk of demonstrating a lack of respect for the tasks you’re given and imply your bosses that their requests may not be as important as those of other managers.
“When you say no to a new commitment, you’re honoring your existing obligations and ensuring that you’ll be able to devote quality time to them,” writes the Mayo Clinic.
Saying “yes” too much could jeopardize more than just your patience. Taking on more than you’re capable could result in illness or burning out. When you become sick, it’s a struggle to help yourself, much less everyone around you, so cut your losses and say “no” for the sake of your health.
“When you’re overcommitted and under too much stress, you’re more likely to feel run-down and possibly get sick,” writes the Mayo Clinic.
You have your mental health to factor into the equation as well. By saying “yes” all the time, your chances of feeling resentful towards those you serve increases, and it’s potentially destructive to everyone if you carry negative emotions around the office.
How to say no…or explain that you’re too busy to stop what you’re doing
If several bosses fire requests at you, a helpful mechanism can be to lay out your schedule and provide a specific time in which you’ll have time to take care of what they need. Unless you’re presented with an urgent duty, don’t drop what you’re doing to work on something else, especially if you’re “in the zone.” You don’t want to become distracted or lose momentum.
“It is always better to underpromise and overdeliver,” Lynn Berger, a New York City-based career coach, told the Levo (League).
It’s also important to be upfront about what you’re doing, Berger added.
“One of the key things to remember is that it is not what you say but how you say it,” Berger said. “If you express yourself clearly and let your boss know all you do then gently let them know what you can not do it can come across better than just outright saying no. Know your limits.”
If you’re totally absorbed in a particular project as one of your managers asks you to do something, explain that you are swamped at the moment and will get to it after your current priority is taken care of. Demonstrate that you understand the importance of your current task and will do the same for other demands. To avoid seeming like a people pleasing flake, be frank with your superiors if they come to you in the midst of an intense assignment. Your workload may be too heavy to commit to something else, so if this is the case, explain that you lack the time and space in your brain to carry out more responsibility.
Make your “to do” list visible to all
In fact, write it all over your face. Jokes aside, make your daily routine transparent to your superiors, and to those who would impinge on your time, to help prevent having to awkwardly turn down tasks in the first place. On any given day, your bosses have a lot to do, so they’re probably not fully aware of everything you’ve got going on in your agenda. That could explain why they expect so much of you, so put your “to do” list high up on the wall for all to see.
Here at Levo, we have white boards on every wall for recording our tasks and weekly goals. At first, I was hesitant to outline my tasks for all the world to see, but it’s a great way of informing others that I’m staying on my toes. If you write down all your duties in a visible area, others will see how much you have to do and perhaps recognize that you’re too overburdened to run their errand or do extensive research for them.
Coming to terms with saying “no”
Though I’ve cut down on my “yes” distribution at the office, I’m still very much a work in progress. I try not to feel too bad after I explain I’m too tied up to pile on any more tasks, but the reactions from others can put me in a state of self-doubt and guilt. Anytime this happens, I remind myself that saying “no” does not make me an uncooperative, poor team player who will be fired any day, but a solid, dedicated employee who stands her ground and recognizes the areas in which her talents are best served.