‘No’ – it’s the hardest word for most of us to say at work. We are asked to be at more meetings, deliver with tighter deadlines and do more with less. We are taking on more and more, and feeling like we can’t say ‘no’. There’s the fear of getting fired, damaging a relationship, being perceived as weak or difficult to work with, and/or missing out on critical information. Whether these are real or imagined beliefs, they influence our decision making.
Are you saying ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’? You are not alone. And there is a very real personal cost to continually saying ‘yes’. The biggest impact is stress. Research from the University of California in San Francisco shows that ‘the more difficulty you have saying ‘no’, the more likely you are to experience stress, burnout and even depression.’ Source: Forbes, The Art of Saying No by Travis Bradberry.
But what about the organizational cost? Strategic leadership demands time to pause and ask important questions before jumping into action. When leaders are focused on an automatic ‘yes’, they move from an organizational culture shaped by strategic leadership to one focused on firefighting. Avoidance of saying ‘no’ actually sabotages long-term goals.
Look around at others on your team and in your organization. There are always those who seem to have a better sense of control and ownership of what happens in their divisions and the work they take on. I’m not suggesting they don’t work hard, rather these individuals have learned the art of saying ‘no’. And you too can flex and strengthen this muscle! The next time you feel pressured to take on more:
Ask yourself if this project, initiative or course of action is worth taking on at this time? This is a bold question but it’s key that you are focused on the right objectives to support your success.
Pause to consider:
- Why am I wanting to say ‘yes’, or why am I afraid to say ‘no’?
- Does ‘yes’ align with my interests (i.e. my career advancement or the opportunity to create a key partnership)?
- Does ‘yes’ further the priorities I’m working on?
- Is there enough data to support a ‘yes’?
By pausing to reflect on your priorities, you sturdy yourself for stepping into potentially difficult conversations and saying ‘no’.
Ask clarifying or probing questions
Avoid overreacting with “No, I can’t take this on – I have no capacity”! It’s imperative that you question and probe prior to jumping into action. Ask questions to clarify why this is a critical priority. Consider how this project or initiative fits into the bigger picture of where you want to take your career or the types of projects and partners you want to be involved with.
Then probe. Smart leaders don’t want ‘yes’ people around them as they know healthy debate enables them to gain clarity and truly understand the organizational impact of their decisions. William Ury in The Power of a Positive No states it’s key to “ask reality testing questions”. What will happen if we don’t resolve it this month? What are the costs of pushing this forward ahead of other strategic priorities? Is saying ‘yes’ moving forward our highest-impact endeavours?
Anticipate the reaction
Take time to consider the impact of your ‘no’. What’s in it for the other leader to accept your ‘no’? You need to provide a compelling reason for them to defer this project, assign it to someone else, or take it off the table altogether. Anytime you are dealing with a difficult situation and you can start with what’s in it for them, your response is going to land much better.
Say ‘no’ by sandwiching your response
The sandwich theory – remember this one? Start with a positive, then add a negative, and close with a positive. How it works: Your boss asks you to take on a new project this week. Your response: We do need these issues addressed (yes) but I have two strategic projects and the Board wants these results asap (no). I just want to let you know that I am fully committed to the organization and ensuring you get these projects on time (yes).
Notice that this response isn’t a straight ‘no’ I won’t do it. It provides an explanation to help soften the news and provide context.
Be firm with your ‘no’
You are going to get push back – that’s normal. But be firm with your ‘no’. A ‘no’ isn’t: ‘I don’t think I can’ or ‘I’m not sure’. Stand your ground and professionally but concisely say what you need to say: ‘No I can’t take this on right now’.
For more tips to empower you to enter the most challenging conversations with poise, confidence and control, read Managing Difficult Conversations.
Need help saying 'no'? Contact us! We can help you with strategies to say 'no' confidently, professionally and without burning bridges.
Wishing you much career success!
Joanne Loberg Certified Executive Coach & Internationally Certified Career Management Professional
JL Careers Inc