Should You Learn to Say "No" at Work?

Learning to say “no” is touted as an essential component of reducing stress, overwhelm, and burnout. If you’d like to do a little brushing up on this concept, here’s a fantastic refresher from my friend Nikki who writes an amazing blog aimed at empowering women. Following her tips in your daily life will help you hone your “No” skills.

But in the professional context, things can get complex. Apart from examining your true desires, following your intuition, and being honest with yourself and others, you’re flooded with extra factors and influences that can make a “no” especially hard to dole out.

Will your “no” taint your reputation in the eyes of the senior colleague who made the ask? Would a “yes” open the door to contacts or opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible? Is “no” really even an option at work?

Let’s break this down.

First things first: put yourself on alert for professional situations where you’re presented with requests that could potentially warrant a “no”.

I’d be willing to bet that before you begin this exercise, at least half of your “yesses” are made on autopilot. So start to be mindful of your choices. When you drill down, nearly everything you take on is a choice (regardless of whether presented to you in the form of a neatly packaged “yes” or “no” question) - you have way more control than you might think!

Once you’ve raised your awareness of situations where you’re presented with a choice, you’ll need a go-to response to buy you a bit of time. Until you’ve become really good at making quick decisions and formulating appropriate responses, this extra time is necessary so you can consciously think before you give your “yes” or “no”. Here is the easiest one to pull off:

“I’ve got to jump on a call/respond to an emergency e-mail/attend to an urgent matter, so I’ll circle back with you to discuss this in a half hour.” (Do NOT throw in a “Sure!” or “Of course!” or anything else that might be construed as a “yes”. Just stick to the script!)

Once you’ve bought yourself a little time to gather your thoughts, assess these factors:

Is the ask something that’s part of your job description and coming from someone with the authority to make the request?

It seems obvious that you don’t have the option to say “no” to a request from a direct supervisor who’s asking you to do your job, but it isn’t always this crystal-clear. In many cases, you have more than one “boss”, and in the professional world, job descriptions tend to be based on “big picture” tasks. (I’m not even sure any of my professional roles have ever had a real job description!) But the bottom line is, no matter how much we all love the jokes going around the Internet about staying home from work because it doesn’t “spark joy”, there are certain things you have to suck up and get done no matter what.

But I’d caution that even then, you should be aware of whether a superior is consciously or unconsciously doling out rote assignments to you and “choice” assignments to colleagues who may fit a different demographic (this is one of the places bias is likely to manifest). And begin to note which assignments are giving you heartburn so you can assess whether you ultimately need to aim for another role or change direction with your career.

If you have an internal knee-jerk “no” reaction to a request, what’s the underlying reason?

If the request isn’t something you must accept because it’s part and parcel of your job, it may be time to brush up your workplace “no” skills. But before you immediately conclude that something is a “no”, pause to think about the basis of your “no” instinct. What is the root emotion? Are you annoyed that you’re being asked to do something that is below your level? Are you stressed because you’ve got too much on your plate already? Finally, is your “no” reaction rooted in fear? Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone is the best thing you can do to move up the ladder.

And even once you determine that you’re experiencing a “no” reaction rooted in legitimate discord with your values or goals, is there any reason saying “yes” might ultimately be aligned with your career plan, even if the task at hand isn’t necessarily the most riveting assignment? Plenty of uber-successful people have tales of putting in years of grunt work to gain entry to the roles they were aiming for - but plenty of others stagnate in their careers performing dead-end work. So evaluate where a particular task falls on this spectrum before you decide how to react.

If your initial instinct is “yes”, should you really say “yes”?

Have you been presented with an amazing opportunity you’ve been waiting for? Is it a passion project you’re excited to take on? Or are you saying “yes” out of a sense of obligation? If the latter, you likely need to go back to the initial work practicing “no” in everyday life to learn to listen to your gut instincts. Old habits die hard, especially when you throw in the conditioning you’ve been subjected to in the corporate culture.

Even if something’s unequivocally a yes, do you honestly have the time and resources to give your best yes? If not, you may need to give a “no” regardless of your desire to take on the project. No matter how critical things may seem in the moment, it’s unlikely that any one decision will make or break your career. And even if you care about something deeply, if you aren’t in a position to take on a task effectively, you’re doing your values a disservice by saying “yes”.

One of the most illuminating moments of my career came in the midst of my first maternity leave, when a client asked me and my boss to take on what would have been a hugely profitable and high-profile project and was right up my alley. Thankfully, my boss stepped in and said “no” for me (at that point in my career, if left to my own devices, I likely would have said “yes” and then killed myself juggling a newborn and a huge project while on “leave” and ended up miserable and not giving my best in any area of my life), but the surprising part was the client’s reaction. The client was sincerely thankful that we were honest about our capacity to take on the project, and the level of trust in the client relationship was instantly on a higher plane, which led to plenty of similar opportunities down the line.

Now, to the really difficult part: how to actually say “no” in the professional context.

Saying “no” in the professional context brings up added baggage as compared to saying “no” in your personal life. So it’s critical to frame your “no” in a straightforward, yet strategic manner. There’s no script for this one because every situation is unique. But in general, it helps to give your “no” in the form of honesty with a side dose of benefit directed at the recipient.

Compliments never hurt (as long as they are genuine - I’d never advocate for acting in an inauthentic manner). “This is such a creative idea! But I’m not the best situated to help you implement it.”

Goodwill directed to others in the workplace is another useful deflector: “I’m glad you asked me because I’ve been working closely with [insert name of a more junior colleague] and know this is right up her alley. I’m at capacity right now but this would be an amazing opportunity for her.”

If you need to say “no” to a request that you’ve determined may be rooted in bias or is something inappropriate for your level of seniority, the best approach might be turning the tables and questioning the person who made the ask, such as “Could you explain why you selected me for this?”. Open-ended questions can help things click or open a dialogue that will help you gain ammunition for communicating your “no” in a productive manner (or might lead to a change of heart once you gain a better sense of where the requester is coming from).

Finally, if you need to say “no” because you’re already ten feet underwater and on the verge of your eighteenth breakdown of the week and one more thing might make you contemplate jumping out the window, honesty is the best policy. Be direct and firm. If you’re operating in an authentic manner (i.e., you’re working your bum off and genuinely cannot take on anything else and if you do you’ll almost certainly be forced to do a shoddy job), you’ll be surprised how accepting people can be of a “no” in this situation. Or if you’re in an environment where no amount of workload warrants a “no”, practice cheerfully saying “Great, I can get this done by next Friday!” (and start some deep reflection on whether your current workplace is where you really want to couch your career).

Sometimes you have to say “no” to yourself.

This post would be incomplete if I didn’t point out that the nameless “requestor”/”recipient of your no” may actually be looking at you in the mirror. How many things on your plate are there because you volunteered without thinking, or are based upon standards you’ve imposed on yourself? Give yourself permission to let go of things that aren’t going to have a material effect on your goals. Cut yourself some slack and work on directing your energy to the things that objectively matter the most.

I wish I could say “practice makes perfect” and that before long, you’ll have saying “no” down pat in your professional environment. But this is a case of “practice makes better”. Some situations will be easier than others to navigate, but if you do some conscious work at saying “no” in your career, it will help you focus on the actions that align with your values and goals. And those actions will ultimately be the drivers for your successes.

About the author: Amy Bowen is a career coach who helps high-achieving professional women feeling trapped, overextended, or burned out find their authentic and streamlined path to success by “cleaning up” their careers (and lives) applying minimalist principles and strategies. To learn about Amy’s career coaching programs, visit http://bit.ly/thecleancareerinfo.

Type-A Personality May Not Be Exactly What You Think

I made a quick stop at the grocery store yesterday to grab a gallon of milk. As I hurried out, the automatic doors opened WAY too slow for my liking. I mean, I practically had to stop dead in my tracks and WAIT for the door so I could get back to my desired pace. You’d think by now they’d make automatic doors that function a little quicker, right?

If it hadn’t been for my recent study of Type-A personality, I would have ended my train of thought with this agitated observation about the ineptitude of the doors. But I’ve been practicing conscious thinking in an effort to further refine my “clean” approach to getting things done, and a big part of that has involved assessing which Type-A tendencies are holding me back from the free-flowing and relaxed state of focus that I know generates the most powerful returns in my life.

I’ve known forever I’m a Type-A personality, but when I started to delve into some research about it, I was initially shocked to learn that impatience is one of the hallmarks. “That doesn’t fit me at all!” I thought, thinking of my never-ending supply of patience when it comes to dealing with my children without blowing up, or my willingness to stick with a project to reach my goal no matter how long it takes.

But when I did some deeper self-reflection, I realized a LOT of the anxiety and stress I experience comes from a less overt type of impatience. And it can run on constant repeat in my head. For example, even as I calmly ask my daughter to put on her shoes for the eighteenth time in the morning, a very different track is running in the back of my mind (“She’s going to be late for school; I’m going to be late for work; I have way too much to do today to lose the extra ten minutes I gain by beating the school dropoff traffic…”). Or when I realized I’d forgotten milk on my weekly grocery trip and told myself it was all good because I’d just fly in and out of the store to grab some on my way home from work - everything under control, no stress, no ruffled confidence that I’m holding everything together, right? (Wrong! I realized the dialogue in my head was quite different when I felt my blood pressure rising over the sluggishness of the automatic doors.)

If you’re a Type-A personality, take some time to really listen to your inner dialogue and your physical reactions to the daily tasks of your job and life. It’s hard to even acknowledge this underlying impatience because it’s antithetical to the Type-A personality to admit your flaws. But to fully tap into the good aspects of your personality type (your drive, ambition, and work ethic), it’s essential to face and ameliorate the negative aspects. And impatience can be a really sneaky and insidious one to identify and correct.

So what do you do when you notice an underlying impatience invading your thoughts? Practicing mindfulness surrounding the issue is the first step. But then, you need to retrain your mind. By taking actions contrary to the impatient emotions, you can actually rewire your brain (it’s science, I’m not making this up!). So when you feel that impatience, anxiety, or stress rearing its ugly head, take some deep breaths, acknowledge the feeling, and then put a positive statement in your head to replace the harmful reaction. A mantra can help (mine lately has been “Calm and collected, calm and collected”). It sounds silly, but you don’t have to say it out loud! Just come up with something that works for you to transition your thoughts and physical reactions to the efficient flow you know will make you most productive.

The more you practice, the more it will begin to click. It doesn’t happen overnight when you’ve got a lifetime of Type-A tendencies dominating your mind, but slowly and surely, progress will come. (Maybe soon I’ll even reach a point where I’m calm and collected enough that I don’t forget the milk in the first place!)

About the author: Amy Bowen is a career coach who helps high-achieving professional women feeling trapped, overextended, or burned out find their authentic and streamlined path to success by “cleaning up” their careers (and lives) applying minimalist principles and strategies. To learn about Amy’s career coaching programs, visit http://bit.ly/thecleancareerinfo.

The Lost Art of Attention to Detail

Minimalism is being exercised improperly by many professionals today. It’s becoming all too common for people to stop reading e-mails after two lines, halfway listen to a client or colleague and then jump to an immediate answer without much thought, or skim required reading material rather than thoroughly digesting it. Things like “The Four-Hour Workweek” and the 80/20 rule lead too many people to believe that success and efficiency are all about cutting back, delegating, and automating. Getting things “off your desk” becomes paramount to doing deep work (which, if you really study the aforementioned principles, is still essential).

The Phenomenon

Digital articles must be prefaced with a note about how long it will take you to read them - and the prediction doesn’t account for time spent thinking through principles in a meaningful way. Professionals (particularly women) are urged to let go of perfectionist tendencies, to the point where typos and snafus are more common than not. Grammar is no longer part of the curriculum in many schools (or at least it’s not sinking in!). You get the picture.

I call this phenomenon “The Lost Art of Attention to Detail”. Ironically, the root of the problem is the massive number of details now at our fingertips. It’s imperative to exercise minimalism, to “pick your battles” and “be selective about what you give your time to” in today’s world to avoid, well, implosion. We are bombarded with so much information, the pace is so fast, the pressure to deliver so strong, that attention to detail can be one’s downfall if not exercised judiciously.

Why It’s Problematic

Most jobs still (and always will) inherently require more than four hours a week, and success in many fields will always remain based primarily on a standard of perfectionism, where nothing less than 100% is the goal. At least I hope that people like airplane mechanics and brain surgeons (and my hairstylist) are still operating in accordance with these standards. But I’m a lawyer, and I’m observing that attention to detail is becoming increasingly rare in the legal profession. Sure, nobody’s life is on the line (at least not in the immediate sense), but if a profession couched in nuanced analysis is being swept up in the trend, that’s indicative that much of our population is operating on a less attuned level.

I see too many people in my profession and in the broader business world acting with an urgency that is, at its core, inconsistent with the task at hand. The result is subpar work product. And in terms of relationships, this harried style leads to miscommunications, mismanagement, and missed opportunities.

But there’s more. Attention to detail means you care. So many people now lack true care in the majority of the things they do. It’s faster and easier to skip the time and attention required to involve not only your whole conscious brain, but your emotional self too. This type of holistic attention to detail is the same driver for doing the right thing even when nobody’s watching. It’s the same psyche that pushes people to go the extra mile to help someone else out even when it’s not particularly convenient, despite all the “noise” preaching to us to “learn to say no”. It’s the mindset that helps parents make true connections with children, and managers forge effective relationships with employees.

And in terms of our mental health, mindfulness and gratitude require this type of attention to detail too. This is why some people are literally addicted to yoga or keep Oprah’s gratitude journal religiously, while for others, these things are passing fads. The difference lies in those who are astute enough to realize the nuances and deeper levels of these exercises, as opposed to merely the superficial. Those who gloss over the details are susceptible to stress, anxiety, and the physical manifestations of mental overload caused by the hyper-paced digital world.

How to Apply Minimalism Effectively

So what’s the take-away from all this? If you want to be uber successful, "tidying up" your approach to your career does not mean glossing over details. The real key to thriving in today’s world is balancing a minimalist approach with the care and focus that is necessary for important tasks. It’s about honing your sense of judgment so you’ll know when to devote your full attention to important details and when you’re getting lost in details that are immaterial.

It’s true that there’s an art to crafting a succinct e-mail. But there’s a much higher art in synthesizing myriad details into cohesive and thoughtful summary (that’s not so long the recipient will quit reading before the end). If you compartmentalize, pare down, streamline, and automate everything, you run the risk of missing the bigger picture. You miss flashes of brilliance where your mind makes connections that are unique and beautiful and that a computer just can’t replace. Pausing to reflect on details fosters creativity, perspective, and quality. And this is what separates the good from the great in today’s world - if you care, that is.

About the author: Amy Bowen is a career coach who helps high-achieving professional women feeling trapped, overextended, or burned out find their authentic and streamlined path to success by “cleaning up” their careers (and lives) applying minimalist principles and strategies. To learn about Amy’s career coaching programs, visit http://bit.ly/thecleancareerinfo.