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Opinion

How to say no at work ... and still get ahead

It's easier than many women might think.

By Nanette Gartrell / March 3, 2008



San Francisco

Can you say NO at work to extra tasks without jeopardizing your job or sandbagging your career? When you're repeatedly given assignments outside your job description, do you lie awake at night trying to figure out how to set limits? If your boss asks you to stay overtime when you have friends coming to dinner, do you feel too anxious to say that you have a prior commitment? Do you believe that the only way to succeed at work is to say yes to whatever you're asked to do?

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Many women have difficulty saying no at work, because we worry about the fallout. We say yes more often than we'd like for so many reasons: to preserve relationships, to show commitment, to be team players, to demonstrate competence, to be liked, and to be kind. In a time-limited situation, the immediate or anticipated benefits of acquiescing may be worth a sacrifice. But repeatedly backing away from setting self-protective limits is a recipe for resentment and burnout.

It takes a unique mixture of decisiveness and flexibility to fit the demands of our workplace responsibilities. But there are tools to make this part of your job easier than you might think.

I interviewed more than 100 successful women leaders – from CEOs to celebrities, college presidents, police chiefs, and public officials – to find out how they learned to say no. Many of them started out as "yes women" before mastering the art of no.

For the most part, these women developed their own techniques of saying no – favoring a collaborative over a hierarchical style in problem solving and decisionmaking. Because relationships are important to them, they try to be respectful even as they set limits. Many take the time to explain the reasons for their nos and to offer helpful suggestions or alternatives when they decide to refuse a request. Bottom line – they aim to keep the connections that count.

Among the strategies I gleaned from the collective wisdom of these powerful women naysayers: You can only say no at work when you have a clear sense of your priorities. You need to weigh the risks and benefits of every refusal – both professionally and personally. Finally, you must tailor your response to fit the request. Your no can't be one-size-fits-all if you care about your relationship with the person who's asking.

An effective way to set limits at work without jeopardizing important relationships can be as easy as asking yourself a few questions:

When you receive a request, if it's not an emergency, give yourself time to consider whether you want to say, "Let me think about this/check my schedule/consider my other obligations." Then let people know as soon as possible. Keep your word.

Ask yourself if you have to grant the request, and what you might lose if you say no. Is the request within the parameters of your job description? Does your job, livelihood, or promotion hinge on saying yes? If your career is not on the line, will agreeing to the request be a hardship for you, your family, or other important relationships?

Does the request fit within your priorities? Is it part of your personal agenda? Will it bring you closer to your goals? Will you be happy or fulfilled if you agree to the request? Are you inclined to say yes out of a desire to be helpful? Are you being asked to do something meaningful or substantive? Can you do it well? Is someone else better suited to handle the responsibility?

If you decide that it is not in your best interest to say yes, state your no clearly and decisively. A clear no, communicated in a timely manner, is easier to deal with than a mushy nonanswer that leaves the requester in the twilight zone.

A young college professor told me that she said yes to everything her boss asked her to do because she thought she wouldn't get tenure if she refused an assignment. When a family health crisis forced her to cut back on other obligations, I advised her to set limits at work. Saying no paid off. Focusing on projects that were important to her, she was tenured in record time.

Like this professor, you may feel inclined to explain your reasons, but be brief. Clarify why the request doesn't fit within your priorities, strategies, or prior commitments. If it's a policy-based decision, explain why your refusal should not be taken personally.

Acknowledge the requester's need by suggesting other ways of getting it done, if possible. It's always better to be helpful when you can, and sometimes your generosity comes full circle.

For instance, a venture capitalist told me that when she says no to a start-up, she provides business strategies so the principals will look back on the conversation from a positive perspective: "You help them and they'll help you some way in the future – perhaps they will send you somebody else, and maybe that's the next Google."

To be sure, women have proven themselves in the work force, and yet many of us still struggle with old patterns of saying yes when we would rather refuse. Breaking that cycle by allowing yourself enough time to weigh your options is not only healthy, it's a pathway to success.

Nanette Gartrell, MD is the author of "My Answer Is NO … If That's Okay with You: How Women Can Say NO and (Still) Feel Good About It."

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