3 Ways Saying No at Work Can Boost Your Career

Man and woman talking in office

By Hallie Crawford

Many of us believe, whether consciously or not, that it's important to say yes at work, especially to our bosses. Even if we realize rationally that sometimes we need to say no to better manage our time – because we are overwhelmed or if we aren't capable of handling a task – I think most of us are hardwired to be pleasers and say yes at work. It makes sense on a basic level. We are there to do a job. When someone asks us to do something, our instinct can be to say yes. But we know rationally that it's critically important to say no sometimes at work. And it takes emotional intelligence to not just react to a situation or a request, but take the time to step back, reflect on the best course of action, then act accordingly. Too often it is easier to fall prey to the knee-jerk reaction to say yes, instead of having a tougher – but perhaps more productive – conversation to say no or negotiate an alternative.

If you are someone who tends to say yes more than you should, here are three ways to learn how to stop.

1. Say no to pleasing everyone. You know these sayings: "We can't be everything to everyone" and "The key to failure is trying to please everyone." It feels good to please others. It can even feel
addictive to some people. And when we do it too often, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

Be mindful of how strong this desire to please people is for you. When you are saying yes, is that frequently the driving force?

Action tip: Imagine that people-pleasing is a side of your personality, almost like a person inside you, and once you start to notice it more, you can better manage it. Become more objective about it by observing when the desire to please arises and ask yourself, "Is this the right time for that?" See your people-pleasing side as both a strength and weakness. The strength lies in the motivation to help others. The weakness is when you do so to your detriment. Put a star by the times that you said yes to someone purely out of pleasing them rather than practicality. Or when you said yes to please them, and it was a mistake.

2. Say no to being complacent. Moving forward in your career requires hard work. Sometimes we don't have a job that's a good fit for us, but it is comfortable – like wearing your favorite pair of
slippers. You do your job well. You know everyone. You know what is expected of you. And even though you dream about doing something else, the days just seem to slip by. You feel OK at your job but not passionate about what you do. If this sounds familiar, you need to consider whether it's time to say no to this career path and move on.

Action tip: Think about where you are being complacent in your current job – and in your career overall. Create two columns to separate your lists on the page. In your current job, are you not challenging yourself enough? Are you taking shortcuts that are impacting your performance? We've all done it, be honest with yourself. Next consider your long-term career. Do you have a five-year strategic career plan? Are you being complacent about steering your career in the direction you want it to go? Consider long-term career goals as well. Finally, think about the steps you need to take to step out of your comfort zone and say no to being complacent. Write those down and consider times in the past when you have taken a risk and succeeded. What kept you motivated toward that goal? Identify, not just the steps to take, but the accountability you need to put into place to keep you moving forward, including deadlines written on your calendar, friends and family who will hold you to your goals.

3. Say no to being like everyone else. In the global marketplace, with the ability to work remotely, competition for jobs in certain industries is steeper than ever. With the pool of candidates expanding to overseas markets, where applicants have many of the same skills you do, you need to be able to stand out to move ahead. This tip goes along with saying no to being complacent. Embrace your differences, develop a niche for yourself and unique set of skills, and make them work for you.

Action tip: Take 20 minutes to think about your peers in your industry and identify three things – skills, experience or education – they have that you don't. Look at their Linkedin profiles if needed. Then consider, can you add any of these items to your repertoire within the next three to six months. How so? Write down two action steps. Next, evaluate your soft skills or any other talents that help you stand out. How can you leverage those to stand out at work? For example, if you are great at preparing presentations, create a small sample and show it to your boss, and offer to prepare an upcoming presentation for a client or the office. Or if you speak another language, you could offer to translate files into that language or be an interpreter for clients. These steps can help your superiors see your worth, and help you stand out in the marketplace.

Remember, saying no for some of us can be like a muscle we need to develop. Just like working out at the gym, it takes time for this skill to develop. You'll get there. Take it in baby steps if needed.