What part of no don't
For the sake of your career health,
it can sometimes pay
to stop being a yes person.
Globe & Mail: March 29, 2006: WALLACE IMMEN
Whenever it was time for more work to be handed out in her job as an
advertising copywriter for agency Ogilvy & Mather, Susan Newman became known
as the "go to" person.
Anxious to keep bosses happy and be seen as a valuable team member, she
always responded with a "no problem," no matter how busy a week she was
But far from winning praise for taking on the extra burdens, she found she
was criticized for falling behind in her projects, and she was losing her
"I would agree to everyone's requests and I was in a constant state of
overload and anxiety," she recalls. "Then I'd get upset with myself and mad
As Ms. Newman discovered, it doesn't always pay to be a yes person. While
being eager to take on challenging assignments and assist team members when
they need help are supposed to be qualities that help you get ahead, in
reality, for the health of your career, she says, you have to just say no.
"That may sound selfish, but I really believe if you want to get ahead and
keep from being overwhelmed, you have to be clear that your priorities come
first," said Ms. Newman, the author of a new book, The Book of No: 250 Ways
to Say It -- and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever. "Saying no can
pay benefits for your career."
But that can be tough, because people are programmed all their lives to say
yes, says Ms. Newman, who, after leaving her advertising job to get a PhD
now teaches social sciences and writing at Rutgers University in New
"It starts when our parents say 'if you say no, you are going to your room.'
That's reinforced in school, where teachers expect agreement. By the time we
launch a career, we're conditioned to feel guilty about saying no," she
And that's destined to hold you back. "The most common source of overload in
a job is the willingness to take on more and more and more, trying to look
good. Instead, you wind up staggering from the weight and looking not so
So how do you say no to work and still keep on the good side of the boss and
be seen as a team player?
It's a matter of unlearning the programming and making deliberate decisions
about when people are taking advantage of your good nature, she says.
Moreover, the strategy for saying no depends on who you are saying it to.
Co-workers can easily get into the habit of coming to the " yes person"
first whenever they need help for anything, from taking a report home to
revise on the weekend to helping replace the toner in the copy machine, Ms.
"The fear of saying no comes from imagining the person is going to be upset
with you and think you are not a team player and that you have no concern
for the job," she says.
But, in reality, if you say no, the person asking for help will likely go
"Actually what the person is thinking is: Okay, you said 'no,' so I'm going
to ask someone else. People just want the job done, so don't waste your time
and energy worrying about how saying no will be perceived," she says.
The way to deprogram others' expectations: Become very deliberate about
thinking through a request before making a commitment, she recommends. "Just
say, I'll give you an answer later."
You may still decide to eventually take on a task, but the deliberation will
deflect expectations that you are the default "go to" person, she says.
When an immediate superior or team leader is the one piling on an
assignment, Ms. Newman suggests making it clear how much of a contribution
you are already making.
"Remember, the star performers are the ones most likely to be asked to take
on tasks, so take it as a compliment," she says. "But also remember you are
a star because you do superior work and you are going to do less well if you
She says to point out how taking on more could affect the quality or time it
takes to complete. Make clear you understand the importance of the project
but that other priorities will have to be revised, or suggest others in the
team who could do the task.
With a boss, "you should avoid using the actual word no, Ms. Newman
recommends. If the boss says, "This is a rush job and I know you can do it,"
but you are already overloaded, come back with a description of the projects
you have on the go, and say "Let's review them and reorder the priorities,
because I'm working flat out now."
That makes the points that you are working hard, are conscientious and
willing to take on more, but are also concerned that it might take away from
the quality you are putting into the work already assigned.
That leaves it up to the boss, who may decide to take the assignment to
someone else. At the very least, it can ease your immediate workload so you
don't feel so overwhelmed.
Even executives and managers can gain benefits from being more willing to
say no, Ms. Newman says.
If you're getting pressure from management to speed up a project or bring it
in under budget, you can end up failing despite your efforts, and hurt staff
morale in the process.
Instead, Ms. Newman suggests sitting down with the boss and saying something
like: "I'm pushing my employees to peak performance and this new request
risks pushing them over the edge."
Without having to directly say no, you have laid out consequences that could
affect success unless the project, deadline or staffing is changed.
That makes it clear that you are concerned with the outcomes and want to
lead in a way that is best for the company and your employees.
In any case, you should always stress how willing you are to do the best for
everyone concerned, Ms. Newman advises.
And, you don't want to slam the door completely on managers and colleagues
you must work with and who you have to count on for help, she notes. Offer
to take on your share of the load when it is convenient; when it is not,
stay supportive by saying for instance, "No, I can't help you out now, but
when I get this project done and I have time, I'll be happy to help you
"Saying no isn't about shirking responsibility. It's about being willing and
able when it is justified, but backing away when it is clear it has no
advantage or that people are taking advantage of your good nature, Ms.
"Unless you learn how to say no to taking on everyone else's job, you're not
going to get your own work done."
TIPS ON HOW TO
JUST SAY NO
Here are tips for saying no and meaning it
from Susan Newman, author of The Book of No.
Examine your exuberance.
Make a list of every time you've said yes to a request over the past few
weeks. Ask yourself why you agreed and whether it was really what you
wanted to do.
Keep your priorities straight.
Help out when it's convenient, but remember that doing your own work well
is most important.
Establish and guard personal boundaries.
Let it be known when an outside responsibility for spouse, children or
parents makes you unavailable.
Know your physical limits.
How much can you take on? If you find you aren't doing your
best work or it's spilling into weekends or causing you to lose sleep,
turn down additional responsibilities until you catch up.
Even if you can, should you?
Estimate the probability of success, because doing poorly
or taking on tasks beyond your ability or expertise could end up working
Think before you decide.
Ask for time to consider and details of what's expected
before making a decision.
Say no without being negative.
Make clear that, in saying no, you are already heavily involved in work at
hand and doing it for the good of the company and the team.
Don't get into a debate.
Going into a long explanation of your reasons can end up turning into a
discussion designed to persuade you to change your mind.
Negotiate a compromise.
If your job or a promotion is in the balance, you may have
to agree, but make it clear that, if you are overwhelmed, you have to put
off some other priority.
Get a quid pro quo.
If the person says "I owe you one," take them up on it.
No should mean no.
Once you've made a final decision, stick with it.