As a recovering people pleaser I have spent most of my life saying yes to everything. Many times it has served me well. I have had a wealth of opportunities presented to me. The people-pleaser in me has frequently said yes to something, even if my confidence, or my rational brain, was saying no. And I’ve got ahead in my career because of it. I was even told early on in my career that I couldn’t say no to anything offered to me because it would damage my future career (some of the worst career advice out there!). Consequently, I’ve been in the position when I’ve said yes to far too many things. Some of them have pushed me to do great things, but far too many have hindered my progress. With the benefit of hindsight I’ve figured out what does and doesn’t work, but we should all be shortcutting this and learning earlier when we should say yes to elevate our careers, life and business, and when we should be comfortable saying no.
Every time you say yes to something you are actually saying no to far more.
The downside of saying yes
When we say yes to something that results in having too much to do, we fall into the realm of over-promising and underdelivering. Short term, we can handle this by working longer, missing breaks or working on evenings and weekends. But long term, this habit means wewill keep taking on too much, at some point even if you ‘make it work’ you’ll take on more than fits in 7 days, even with crazy working hours. And your personal life will need your attention. Then guess what: we let people down.
As leaders and managers, we all know how much worse it is to deal with someone not delivering, rather than someone who says no at the beginning. We have to fill in the work at the last minute (often doing it ourselves), we have to patch up a poor piece of work, or worst case, something completely fails or under-delivers on our KPIs because of the failure of someone who overcommitted. And we end up not being able to rely on that person. One late delivery, or a personal situation, we will generally forgive and forget. But if we see a pattern, we all learn to not trust that person, however good their intentions.
It’s important to remember, that every time we say yes, we are actually saying no to lots of other things we should or could do. We might be saying no to attending a family event. But we might also be saying no to the amazing project heading down the pipeline that is perfect for your skillset. We might be saying no to an ideal working relationship for the short term win of this one in front of us that we don’t really want but feel obliged to take.
Every time you say yes, you are necessarily going to have to say no to other things, whether explicitly or as an indirect result of just not showing up. Realising this is the first step in understanding how and when to say no.
Fear of missing out
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is real and not to be belittled! But that doesn’t mean we should give into it at every junction. We often equate the fear of missing our with personal/social life, such as on a social event, even though we are tired and don’t really have time. But the fear cycle kicks in with work too.
It is worth noting that FOMO originates in general unhappiness. If you don’t feel satisfaction, your need for autonomy, feeling related to, and for feeling that you are contributing meaningfully to your company/colleagues/team/life will be low.
So before you react out of FOMO, notice that might be what’s going on and address the underlying issues first. If you need to feel like you have more autonomy, are contributing in a meaningful way, saying yes won’t immediately fix that.
Focus on what really matters, not on what your brain is telling you may or may not be missing out on.
Fear of not pleasing those around us
We’ve all said yes because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. But it basically never does any good for those relationships. If you struggle to deliver you may end up resenting the task and/or the person who asked you to take it on. If you do deliver but to a lower level or by missing a deadline, you can damage your relationships. So next time you want to say yes because of the person and not letting them down, ask yourself if you genuinely have time and commitment to give to the project and if it is good for you too.
Helping your team to say no
As a leader, one of the hardest things is helping your team deliver at the level they can realistically achieve. Often we have to fall into management mode when our team fails to deliver on time or to the required specification or standard. Great leadership nurtures your teams’ ability to manage their time and decision making so you don’t need to fall into management mode.
To help your team, notice who needs assistance in saying no. Don’t assume that someone who never delivers is lazy, instead get them to monitor their time for a few weeks. Are they just spending too much time on the things you view as ‘voluntary’ which they think are necessary? Do they get sucked into email because they feel they need to be on all the time? Are they prioritising the right projects and saying no enough. Once you understand the situation, help your team know when they should say no to you and others. We often feel we can’t say no to a boss, so become the boss that they can have a frank conversation with about their time. If you find that they then say no to you more than your peers, then help your team learn to stand up to other managers, and potentially have a word with those managers about your team saying no.
7 steps for saying no to more, and yes to less
- Pause before giving an answer. Don’t give an immediate answer. If it is an email, don’t hit reply immediately. If it is in-person, say “Can I get back to you”. This gives you time to evaluate rather than always being the yes person.
- Why is your instinct ‘yes’? Understand why you want to say yes. Is it because the request is coming from a particular person (your boss, a friend, your family)? Is it because you have FOMO? Is it because you are excited to take the task on? Does identifying the reason change your instinct?
- Is this your core work? If yes, why is it something you are considering you could say no to? If you think there is a question about it, then it probably isn’t your core work. If it isn’t your core work, then you can figure out if it will serve you.
- Is this essential work for you/your team/your business/your career? Try and understand where this fits in to the bigger picture. Is it a nice to have or something completely essential to progress? If it is not essential to progress, then the only reason to do it is because it truly lights you up. But you can only take on one or two of those things at one time.
- How much do you really have on your plate at this time? Are you already fully (or even over) committed? If yes, then you really shouldn’t be saying yes unless you can move something off your responsibilities at this time.
- Can you take on a reduced version of the work? If after answering all of the above you still really want to take this task on, can you reduce your workload for this task? Can you take ownership of the task but delegate the actions. Can you help your team monitor the outcomes themselves, create KPIs that they monitor and report back to you? What can you do to take this on with minimal effort?
- What can you take off your plate to give this new task the time it needs? Start looking at how you spend your time and looking for things that you either don’t enjoy, or shouldn’t be doing because they are not serving your/your future & career/your business. Ideally, don’t commit to taking something on, until something of equal time commitment has been taken off your todo list.
Finally, remember that you need to work on your general work satisfaction to feel better about saying no. If you feel good about what you are doing every day you know when you should and shouldn’t commit to something. Realise that when you say ‘no’, you are being honest to yourself and those around you. Get more comfortable with ‘No’. Recognise that ‘no’ serves everyone better as you don’t overstretch and underdeliver.
As with all confidence-boosting work, this takes practice. Confidence to say no won’t happen overnight. It is a muscle that needs to be trained, exercised and practised. And with all exercise you get big results when you push out of your comfort zone, and then one day you wake up and realise that this is the new normal. So practice using the steps above and work towards saying no with confidence, and yes because you know it is the right thing to do.