Monday, February 16, 2009

Are You Afraid to Just Say "No" at Work?

"Taylor, can you help me out with this report? I need some research done by tomorrow, or I'm really going to be in trouble."


"Taylor, we need someone to head up this new committee, and I think you'd be perfect. Can you put a team together by next Tuesday?"


"Taylor, we're really having trouble with this client and it would be so helpful if you could go there and sort of calm them down. It would be great if you could leave right away."


"Taylor, someone left a mess in the break room. On yourlunch hour, do you think you could use your great organizational skills and bring order to the chaos?"


Many of us hate to say "no." We say "sure" or "yes" to requests for many reasons, but few of them have to do with what is best for us and our careers. We don't say"no" because we don't want someone to be mad at us. We say "yes" because we feel guilty or we're afraid of what could happen if we don't agree to a request.

And, in this rotten job market, we are afraid to say "no" for fear it could cost us our job.

But I recently interviewed some psychologists for my Gannett News Service and column, and they made it crystal clear that not learning to say "no" may be terrible for your career -- and your life.

“When you’re scared about being the next one to be laid off, all kinds of dysfunctional things start to happen,” says Pat Pearson, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based clinical psychotherapist. “You start getting more paranoid, you do your work less well, and you start feeling as if you can’t say ‘no.’ So, you take on anything they throw at you.”

But the problem, Pearson says, is that such a move just makes a career “more and more dysfunctional.”

“You have to decide: Are you going to have a healthy work environment or not?”

Paula Bloom, an Atlanta-based clinical psychologist, says that every worker must realize they only have so much emotional capital to expend every day, and pushing the limits may cost them the very thing they’re hoping to protect.

“If there is too great an emotional cost, then you will become resentful and unpleasant, and not nice to be around. And people who are a pain in the butt are often the ones who are let go,” Bloom says.

Both Pearson and Bloom stress that the emotional and physical cost of never saying “no” – even in this stressful job market – can take a real toll on workers.

“If you don’t feel good about what you’re taking on, then you become negative and angry, and then you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re hurting the company because you’re not going to be as productive,” Pearson says. “If you are doing things you don’t want to do, then you’re going to pay a price with your health. You’re going to get sick more often, and have a high stress level."

But how do you say “no” without being considered a poor team player or labeled with some other negative moniker at work? Both Bloom and Pearson says it’s a matter of understanding your boundaries and then being prepared to make the “no” sound positive. They advise:

Be willing to ask for what you need. "Maybe you’ve been asked to work late, and you can agree to it, except for on Thursdays, when you need to get home on time because your kids have soccer,” Person says. “You have to decide how much you can live with, and what you can’t do without."

Taking a deep breath. “Don’t freak out when someone makes a request. Just say, ‘I would love to be able to help you out, but it won’t work today. If you could give me a few days notice next time, I might be able to do it.’” Adds Pearson: “Act thoughtful and say something like, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ It gives you time to think about it and then make a decision when you’re not under pressure.”

Living with integrity. “If you’re screwing around on the Internet for an hour every day, or faking your time card, then you’ll try to compensate for your guilt and say ‘yes’ to everything. If you live with integrity, you’ll be able to say ‘no’ and not feel guilty,” Bloom says.

Understanding the difference between “can’t” and “don’t want to.” Bloom says that even when the boss makes a request, you can say “no” if you’ve made an honest assessment of your workload. “You can always say, ‘I’d like to do that, but can you help me figure out the priority of these nine other things I have to do?’ Put the issue back on the boss.”

How are some other ways people can be smarter about saying "no"?

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David Benjamin said...

It's so funny that you created this post. I've recently found myself either having to say "No" or put a price tag on my time that if agreed upon, make it worthwhile.

Granted, when you work on salary for an employer it is more difficult to make certain decisions. Knowing your true worth to the organization will allow more sound and confident responses.

The key, I have found is not what you say but how you say it. If the request is unreasonable, give a reasonable counter-suggestion. Try to accomodate if possible, you just never know when you'll need a favor.

Anita said...

That is a great strategy. When you think about it, you don't really resent when someone tells you "no" so much as the way they say it. So, it makes a lot of sense that you use a "no for now" strategy or a "no, but how about this?"

Thanks for adding such a valuable suggestion!

Anonymous said...

I've noted again and again that people who learn how to manage their boss rarely have the kind of exchange that the illustration depicted. Managing your boss implies having regular conversations about his/her objectives and needs (both personal and organizational), and at the same time gaining buy-in to your needs for project resources and support. It's much easier to manage the occasional demand when you both are keyed into mutual needs and responsibilities. However, I am aware that it's rare for people to manage their boss without some type of coaching in the process. Kotter and Gabarro wrote the book on the issue in a brief Harvard Business Review article: Managing Your Boss

Anita said...

Just to clarify, this post wasn't supposed to be reflective of interactions w/bosses. It was aimed more at the everyday exchanges we have with co-workers, team members, etc. In the case of bosses, you do have to do the prep work, just as you suggested. The experts I spoke w/ also suggested saying to the boss: "I'd be happy to do what you're asking, but how would you like me to prioritize these others tasks I have?" That way, they suggest, the onus is on the boss to help you juggle competing demands from him or her.
Thanks, also, for the resource suggestion.

Anonymous said...

I like Pearson's suggested response: "I would love to be able to help you out, but it won’t work today. If you could give me a few days notice next time, I might be able to do it."

I'd suggest giving that response even when you DO have time to help, IF the person asking has a habit of always waiting until the last minute.

I've found that the more often you say "Yes" to last-minute requests, the more last-minute requests you get.

Maybe saying "No" more often will help others to learn the value of time management and planning ahead. :-)

Anita said...

That's a great point you make about people always coming to you with last minute requests if you're always saying "yes." You're right -- take a deep breath and give yourself some breathing space. Just because they're in a panic to get something done does not mean you have to do the same.
Thanks for your great suggestions.

Anonymous said...

A lot of these suggestions are great, but what options do those lower on the totem-pole have?

A clerk, for instance, will have less room to negotiate than, say, an executive assistant...etc.

Anita said...

I still think you have options. If you're doing a good job, and making contributions that are valuable, you're in a much better position. Especially if the boss thinks that some other task will pull you away from what he or she believes is important.I think the comments that have been listed here all valuable for any level of worker. Good communication is key.