Updated: Mar 12
“No” is one the most important skills you need at work right now.
I’ve spoken to lots of people recently and the majority of them are at some extreme level of busy. Maybe so busy that the word ‘busy’ just doesn't really cut it anymore. ‘Super Busy’ has become the next stage of normal and the newest superhero that probably needs killing off.
‘Stacked’, ‘Up against it’, ‘Chaos’ are more words I’ve heard recently to describe an individual's perceived situation. Sometimes, people are so beat down, that words no longer come out anymore and just a shake of the head and a deep breath is all they can muster as a response to the innocent “Hows it all going?”
What this busyness and yes culture says to me is that a lot of us are really finding it difficult to say “no” at the moment. We’ve got accustomed to always playing catch up and wrestling with a million and one things to do. Maybe we’ve programmed ourselves to think that it’s how we operate best, or because everyone else is so busy, it would feel out of place for us not to be in the same boat.
It’s quickly becoming normal to be overwhelmed with stuff to do. And when you stop and think about it, that's not normal.
I’ve heard of too many people reaching breaking point before their body, mind or even partner forces them to stop.
So why do we find using this tiny two letter word such a difficult skill to perfect?
Most of the time we feel a compulsion to say yes and accommodate wherever we can. Saying no to others makes us feel uncomfortable. It makes us get all squirmy and awkward. Generally when someone asks us to do something, our default and instinctive response is to say yes, or “fit it in”.
“Saying no stirs up intensely negative emotions - embarrassment and guilt.” says Vanessa Bohns professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University.
In one of her recent studies, a group of people were each loaned a book from the library and then instructed to deface it. Half of the subjects recorded the fact that it felt wrong to do, but they went and did it anyway. It was later discovered that those who chose to deface the book found it so difficult to reject the person who had asked. They just couldn’t refuse.
William Ury in his book The Power of a Positive No: Save the Deal, Save the Relationship - and Still Say No, suggests that the dilemma we can face in saying “no” often originates from "an internal struggle between reinforcing our own sense of power or knowledge, with a simultaneous desire to foster a relationship".
So it may look like subconscious self sabotage but we’re actually hardwired to agree to doing stuff, even though we may not want to or believe its the right thing to do.
Humans found considerable benefits being in groups, notably hunting and staying alive. Being in a group increased chances of survival with the ability to share resources so we learnt to adopt a sense that being agreeable to the group dynamic was good for us. Clearly it was. If you were not agreeable to the dynamic of the group, you were ostracized and excluded, therefore damaging your ability to obtain access to the required resources needed.
So acceptance is seen as a survival mechanism and therefore saying "no" to your boss makes us think we’ll be perceived negatively, and therefore, excluded.
This inability to say no can also come from our upbringing with parents and engagement with teachers. I very rarely said no to any of them but when I did, it didn't go down too well. Chased up the stairs with a wooden spoon, given detention or lines, back in the day you rarely said no to an authority figure, it would just be riddled with negative consequences.
Plus as we’ve grown up, we’ve started to connect “no” with rejection and disappointment. The fear of getting a no from someone, held you back from ever going to talk to them, or was that just me? We now swerve projecting that feeling of rejection onto someone else by accommodating all sorts of requests. This is true in both our business and personal lives. The people pleaser within us also likes to create and sustain connections with others and anything that threatens to break that bond will cause us to worry. Saying no to joining a meeting, not helping someone when they have asked for it or turning down that invitation creates a sense of panic, so in the end we take the easy way out, the path of least resistance and then before we know it, we’ve become buried under a huge pile of yes.
Saying yes to something immediately removes any risk of conflict, which most of us will tend to do all we can to avoid, but the effects of that yes can cause severe long term damage to us as individuals as well as in relationships and businesses.
There's another thing to consider here also, our own desire to be seen to always be doing stuff. Busyness is becoming an addictive culture and so is the fear of missing out. There is still a large part of us that wants to be seen as in demand or needed which raises our perceived level of importance, so as well as rescuing others and doing everything the boss has asked, we’re also on the lookout for more so we can stay bang up to date with everything that is happening to everyone, everywhere. God forbid we have spaces in our calendar!
Let's put it another way. Maybe we don't even realise that we are saying yes to everything but find it difficult to stop and think about the request that has just been presented. Maybe the “yes” is unspoken and there is an assumption that you will just get on and do things, which has been part of the traditional workplace culture or a prominent part of a relationship. Maybe that's just how it's always been and without disruption, that's how it will always be, despite your beliefs that it will all calm down soon.
So how do we get better at saying “no”?
A “no” for me is providing a healthy challenge. It’s an opportunity for negotiation. It’s a moment in time to make a decision, to choose a course of action. It’s also an opportunity to hold the mirror up.
Hold up your shield of “no” because you can’t kill everything with your sword of “yes”. - Kenny Nguyen
Turn FOMO into JOMO -
The fear of missing out is such a pull that we can agree to all sorts of things. Cover for this person, go to this thing, help out with this and lead on that. Internal alarm bells ring out and we present excuses not to say “no”, I have to attend that meeting because someone else will be there, what would so and so think, if I don’t put my name forward people will think I don’t care, I feel guilty for not helping and the list goes on. There is a lot of social pressure connected with FOMO as well as the perceived sense of duty and obligation to do things like answer emails at ridiculous times. Our desire to get ahead mixed with social media addiction has ended up growing the emotionally intelligent antidote, The Joy Of Missing Out. A pretty new concept originally related to oppose the scrolling on our phones and need to fit in, comparing what we have with others on a regular basis.
Being ok with not knowing everything, being everywhere or seeing everyone grants you the ability to be more present and understanding of your own capacity. JOMO helps to phase out the ‘shoulds’ and become more intentional with our time. It allows us to focus where we are needed on the most important things and as a bi-product, the less time spent being anxious or competitive gives us back our energy.
Can I go away and think about it?
It’s not a no, it’s not a yes, it’s a bit of time for you to weigh up everything else you’ve already got to do and decide whether it is important enough to include.
This bit of reflection is super powerful and provides some clarity around the consequences of another yes. How much time would this new thing take? Who else could do it instead? Does it really need to be done right now, or can it wait?
Ask them to re-prioritise
Some bosses don’t really know the intricacies of the tasks that are going on in the team. It’s not their job to know all the ins and outs but it is their job to make sure you have everything you need to be successful. It’s their job to help you move obstacles out of the way so you can flourish but it is also your job to tell them about all the obstacles. They’re not mind readers.
If you get another request from your boss to do something and you are already at capacity, tell them and then ask them what the priority is now. Because if you take on this new thing, one of the older things you’re working on is clearly not as important anymore.
Empower others to become self sufficient
Have people become reliant on you without even knowing it? Are they calling you before trying to figure things out for themselves? Are you rescuing others because you feel you need to?
We love to help and we love to be part of a community. We’re social creatures that want to nurture and put others first. Giving advice and getting hooked on always being the one to rescue can be an occupational hazard. Helping behaviours can trigger dopamine, serotonin and oxycontin, a neurochemical cocktail that makes us feel good. Whilst seeing people flourish and feeling satisfied that we have provided advice is our goal, it’s only momentarily gratifying.
The effects of you always helping and yesing everywhere can cause severe long term damage to others and we may not even see it.
One person’s inability to say no can bring the whole team or organisation crashing down.
Sometimes we just can’t help but want to fix everything for people. The problem now is that there are too many things going on, you’re now working part time in the circus with all the juggling and plate spinning you’ve signed up for. Tasks become a burden and so do other people. You’re over promising and under delivering and relationships you worked so hard to build are falling away.
If the relationship is strong, the party receiving the no will understand, be empathetic to your mounting commitments and help you by giving you the space you need. We believe others will judge us more harshly than they actually do. The majority of people are so caught up in their own world, with their own mounting list of things, that they would have probably forgotten about your answer and moved on to something else.
So my challenge for you now is to have courage, to be brave and negotiate just one thing. Saying no will not just be good for you, it will be good for your relationships and it will be good for business.
I hope you found value in the piece you just read and may it help you on your journey. Please feel free to share or support my work by buying me a cookie.