Why we need to stop feeling bad for saying no!

I remember early in my career a more senior male colleague said ‘well done’ for the way I had handled his request for my time. It went along the lines of:

Him (walks over to my desk): ‘Can we have a quick catch up?’

Me (in the middle of a task with a short term deadline to meet): ‘Mark, I very much want to catch up with you, but I am working on X with a deadline. Could I come over after that and we could plan a time in the diary?’

Him: ‘Absolutely and well handled!’

I wasn’t sure how to take it at the time and wondered if he thought I should’ve prioritised him. But he seemed genuinely OK with it, and we met later as discussed. The relationship continued positively. For some reason it has stayed with me.

Years later, I work as a career coach and one of the things I see often is individuals overwhelmed with work, teetering on the edge of burnout, juggling many balls in work and life. These are often high calibre individuals, both rising stars and established leaders. Intellectually they know they can’t do all things for all people. We all only have 168 hours a week. Yet in practice, many find it hard to say no to the requests that come at them in all directions on an increasing number of platforms.

Research shows on average women take on more than their fair share of ‘office admin’ or in other words the non-promotable tasks. I read a fascinating article last week by a man who had come to realise this.

He talks about a book called The No Club in which Professors Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart share the findings from their research which reveals that women everywhere are disproportionately asked and expected to take on tasks that inevitably go unrewarded, leaving women overcommitted with volume and underutilised with more value-add work. Things like organising the office party and birthday gifts. This book is now on my reading list.

Throughout my career, I definitely took a lot on through enthusiasm and believing I could make a difference. I’ve always been a joiner … committees, great causes, clubs, social activities, you name it. But the secret is also to know what to drop or what to say ‘no’ to in the first place.

These questions could help you stop and reflect before you say ‘yes’ to something:

  • Why am I considering taking it on?
  • Is it my responsibility?
  • Will it energise me?
  • Will it help me to get new experiences in an area I want to develop?
  • Will it give me the opportunity to build new connections and grow my professional network?
  • Who is it going to help?
  • Does it need to be done now?
  • Could someone else more beneficially take it on?

I was discussing why people feel bad saying ‘no’ at a recent career accelerator programme I was running. One individual shared that they had been raised to help and serve others, so it felt unnatural pushing back at work. Another said they like to please other people, so for them saying ‘yes’ achieves this for them (in the short term). But both of them recognised that they are overworked and don’t have time to look up and out and invest in the things that will help their career success.

So, here’s my challenge to you:

1. Be considered about what you say ‘yes’ to. Don’t automatically say ‘yes’ to everything.

2. Get comfortable with exploring further what is required: the time commitment, what good looks like, the deadline, who else could be involved and so on.

3. Look at the benefits the activity will give you. Is it a good use of your time? Will it help increase your visibility in a positive way? Will you get a new experience from it? Will you learn something new?

If the answer to all of these is ‘no’, consider whether it is really right to take it on.

I’m not advocating for not mucking in, I am advocating for you doing your fair share along with everyone else.

If you would like to work with me, and learn how to say ‘no’ more often, take a look at my packages on the ‘individuals’ page. I offer a free of charge exploration session.

You might also be intersted in my earlier blog post – Why just being great at your job won’t get you promoted.

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