Knowing when to say no

You’re doing yourself a disservice if you can’t drop the word “yes” from your vocabulary. Here’s why.


You’re an accountant at a midsized firm. A colleague, we’ll call him Ken, walks into your office, cursing under his breath. He sits down and starts rattling off his long list of to-dos for the day — back-to-back off-site meetings with clients, assisting on an audit, a business lunch and a conference call. You commiserate for a few minutes — your day also looks pretty packed — then suggest you two take a load off after work; you’ll buy him a beer at the pub down the street. He nods, stands up and starts toward the door, but before you can avert your eyes back to your growing number of unread emails, he says, “Actually, there’s something I wanted to ask you.” You swivel your chair back toward him. “I’m meeting with a potential client tomorrow and haven’t had time to review the file. I’m obviously too busy to do it today. Will you check it out for me? I’ll owe you one.”

Here’s the dilemma: you’re up to your eyeballs in work, including a new assignment the boss handed you yesterday. If you’re going to get ahead of your responsibilities to avoid working all weekend, you don’t see how you can fit Ken’s new client analysis into the mix. But, Ken is obviously treading water and needs you to throw him a lifeline — maybe he’s having problems at home that are taking his attention away from his work at the office, or maybe an overly needy client is monopolizing his time and he’s gotten behind. Ken is a coworker and a good guy and you don’t want to leave him hanging out to dry, but there’s already too much on your plate.

So what do you do? Agree to help out and put yourself in a pickle, or utter that dreaded two-letter word and risk disappointing a colleague?

There are plenty of reasons why so many of us have a hard time saying no. First off, a yes is hands down a more attractive option because it’s just, well, much easier — yes doesn’t demand an explanation the way no does. Eileen Chadnick, a work-life/leadership coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto, says saying yes is a reflex, especially for folks “addicted to the yes habit. They don’t have the confidence to assert and say no; they haven’t clarified their boundaries and priorities to themselves; or they simply don’t know how to say it.” Mary Ann Baynton, a workplace relations specialist and the founder and executive director of Mindful Employer Canada in Toronto, echoes Chadnick’s assessment and says being afraid or anxious also plays a big role in taking on more than we can chew to avoid saying no at the office. “The reasons most of us say yes when we would rather say no are often fear-based — fear of rejection; fear of being judged incompetent or criticized for being difficult; fear of hurting someone; or a fear of failure,” she says.

The thing is, there’s a price to saying yes to everything and everyone, every time. What’s more, your desire to appear as a dedicated, eager team player might just backfire on you. “It can hurt your professional success in many ways,” Chadnick says. “For example, it can contribute to overload and overwhelm, compromising the quality of your work and your wellbeing. It can detract you from the priorities you should be focusing on, and if you’re a leader or hope to be a leader, it’s important to show you can communicate boundaries and set limits.” Yes people aren’t necessarily better workers or managers, she adds. “Leaders who know how and when to say no are seen as more reliable and dependable. They build more trust because when they say yes, it means they can and/or should.” Those who can’t say no are often bypassed for management positions because they “lack the appropriate assertiveness ability and don’t show the discipline or judgment to discern true priorities,” she says.

Need some proven techniques to help you quit the yes habit without damaging your reputation and relationships with colleagues and executives? Read on for solid tips from the pros.

Set boundaries. First things first — it’s much harder to opt out of extra responsibilities if you haven’t taken the time to figure out your priorities and how much you can take on. “Stretching yourself to be helpful and a team player is fine, but it’s important that you also know your limits,” says Chadnick. “Once you do this, it will become clear when you have to say no to a request.”

Assess the project. “Before you say no (or yes) to something you are not sure you want to do, ask more questions,” Baynton suggests. “This buys you time and provides more information that can help you become part of a solution that doesn’t necessarily involve taking on the problem yourself.” For example, Baynton says if you’re asked to handle a large assignment when you’ve already got too much on the go, ask, “What do you hope the outcomes of this project will be?” When you find out, you’ll be better equipped to understand the scope and importance of the assignment, what it means for your boss or colleague (or the company as a whole) and what it might mean for you.

Be honest and empathetic.
Find out why your colleague is grappling with getting his or her work done. It’s easy to get aggravated with Ken for not managing his schedule and doing his fair share, but rather than expressing that frustration, Chadnick says you’re better off asking what he is currently dealing with. “You may find that he can do his work but thought you had more time than he did. Or that he is struggling with a personal issue or health problem, or that he doesn’t feel competent to complete the task. It is not that you are responsible for solving his problems, but by not immediately saying yes or no, you may also have an opportunity to help the colleague identify his own underlying issues.”

When it’s time to say no, your best bet is to be direct and considerate. Chadnick suggests trying this: “I’m sorry I can’t step in and help — I know it’s important but I can’t take this on right now because my plate is already at capacity. I wouldn’t be able to do the job with the quality it demands and taking this on would mean I’d have to compromise other deliverables.”

Refer someone else. The good news? Declining your participation doesn’t necessarily mean you have to leave a colleague out in the cold. “The real skill in saying no is making sure that you’re focused on helping contribute to the solution rather than simply refusing to take on the problem,” Baynton says. “Instead, it can result in you being seen as a problem-solver in the workplace.” If you don’t feel comfortable sending Ken to impose on another coworker’s time, you might consider asking if there’s a way you can help without taking on the entire project. “This demonstrates your willingness to help explore options that might ultimately provide you and your colleague a solution that doesn’t involve you taking on the work,” says Baynton. “In effect, it’s a no that doesn’t end in the coworker feeling denied or dismissed.” Chadnick recommends saying, “While I can’t take on this project right now in its full scope, I’d be happy to take a few minutes with you to discuss some ideas that could help.”

Say yes — but there’s a caveat.
It’s definitely more difficult to turn down your manager than a coworker, and there might be times when you feel you have no choice but to say yes. (If you’re offered a great opportunity or if senior management has trusted you with an important task, for example, it’s probably not in your best interest to decline.) Still, if you’re already overloaded, you should make it known that you’ll happily take on the assignment but something will have to give. “Ask your boss to help prioritize which work should be put aside to allow this project to be added,” says Baynton. “You are in effect saying no to just piling on more work, but you’re doing it in a way that also respects the needs of the organization and your boss.”

About the Author

Lisa van de Geyn


Lisa van de Geyn is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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