Can learning to say no boost your career?

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By Sonia Acosta

Do you remember that 2008 Jim Carrey movie, “Yes Man?” At first you thought, “wow, I want to be like that. I want to take more chances and experience life to its full potential. That’s where I’ve gone wrong. I’ve been too scared, too cautious to just say ‘yes!’”

But, by the time you were halfway through the movie, you probably thought the man was completely insane, and your internal dialogue likely changed to “look at all the trouble he is getting himself into by saying yes to everything.”

Practicing either extreme in the workplace — being a “yes man” or a “no man” — can quickly become an issue, but striking a balance can also be tricky. So how do you find the right harmony between being a yes man and a no man at work? Here are five tips to help you stay in a comfortable, practical middle ground.

Ask questions before saying “yes” or “no”

At every level in an organization backed by good management, employees are being paid not only to produce output but also to think, analyze and question, explains Ellen Huxtable, owner of Advantage Business Concepts, a management consulting firm in Batavia, Ill. “This means asking questions if you foresee a problem of which your supervisor may be unaware or making suggestions if you see a more effective solution.”

Discuss the options

Lawrence Polsky, managing partner at Peoplenrg, a company that specializes in energizing teams and facilitating change in organizations, suggests you always offer options.

“Tell them what you can do,” he says. “Scale down their request to a doable size. Tell them how much time or resources you have available. Give at least three. Then let them chose the best option. This comes across as positive and collaborative. It turns into a discussion and a solution that works for all parties.”

Advises Karlin Sloan, CEO of leadership development firm Karlin Sloan and Company in Oak Park, Ill, and author of “Smarter, Faster, Better and Unfear; Facing Change in an Era of Uncertainty,” “Say no when you know you can’t complete something, or when you know intuitively it’s the wrong thing to do. Say no when something doesn’t play to your strengths, and be prepared with solutions if you have to find someone else with strengths different than your own.”

Consider the relationship at stake

Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of “The 11 Laws of Likability,” and president of Executive Essentials, a corporate training and coaching company in South Orange, N.J. suggests employees weigh the importance of the task and the relationship involved when deciding whether to accept or decline.

“If it is a low importance task and relationship, say yes,” says Lederman. “Ask whether this is something that needs to be completed right away. Perhaps explain that you can do part of the task now, and leave the less important parts for later.”

“If it is a low importance task and high importance relationship, reprioritize. Say yes.” If you have another critical task in the queue, ask whether that deadline can be pushed back to take care of the task at hand.

In a high importance task, high importance relationship situation, the best option is to say yes, Tillis suggests.

Think before you agree

“When we always say yes, there is no way to complete everything, or to do everything well,” says Sloan. “Too much yes will always get you into trouble down the line, because there’s no way to take it all on. At some point you’ll collapse under the weight of what you’ve said yes to.”

On the other hand, she adds, “When we say yes carefully to what we’re really good at, particularly what we’re good at that is fun, interesting, or energizing, that shows up in your work product and your attitude. Be choosy and you won’t regret it.”

Be a leader

Want to grow a successful, flourishing career? Your best bet is to think and act like a leader, always, whether you are currently there or not. You know what they say. Fake it until you make it, baby.

Harlan Georger, business expert and author of “The Sales Gap” and “Bypassing ‘No’ in Business” says, “I work with CEOs, owners, etc., and they are looking for leadership in others. Without other leaders, the organization stalls and growth stops.”

Upper management has no interest in yes or no men. “They want people with confidence, courage, ideas and energy.”

Both extremes cause a critical problem, explains Georger. “Eventually saying yes will overload you and cause a rash of failures. Talk about a career killer! Saying yes when it makes sense for you, your team and your company, is great. Everyone wins, and you can test and demonstrate your leadership.”

“The problem with being a no man is the perception of being uncooperative, negative and an idea blocker. Eventually no one will come to you or ask you. Be sure you have clear reasons for [saying] no and why it is bad for the company, team and leadership. This shows courage, insight and vision; all assets leaders want in their people.”

So what is the lesson here ladies and gentlemen? Well, first, go rent “Yes Man,” watch it carefully, and don’t chew the popcorn too loud, because Jim Carrey will teach you a valuable lesson. At first you will feel guilty for not living your life to its fullest all this time. But later you will see the dangers of the extremes come to life, and the guilt will slowly subside. And well, if that doesn’t convince you to be careful with what your agree to in life and at work, just listen to the experts.

Do you have any good tips for learning to say no at work? Share them in the comments section, below.

3 Comments
  1. The virtues of prudence and moderation come into play here. If a request is reasonable and achievable then say yes. If not say no. In the end you can only do what you are able to do. Jobs will come and go, but your character stays with you for life.

  2. I feel Karlin Sloan’s suggestions on this topic are the most reasonable out of all professional comments. A “good” manager/supervisor would consider an employee’s strengths and whether or not the employee has demonstrated that he/she is up to the challenge before asking or in most cases appointing an employee to assume certain responsibilities. This would be in the best interest of the company, manager and the employee. However, many of us have experienced that this is not the case. Therefore, it is important for the employee to be aware of his/her strengths and what they can contribute to a project.
    I agree with Steve who posted a comment. Thank you Steve!

  3. Pingback: The Work Buzz | The 10 “True Blood” characters in your office

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