Learning how to say no at work without seeming lazy

Success can be gained by being a ‘yes’ person. Especially in corporate environments, being easy to get along with, amicable, and always willing to help, could be your pathway to longevity in a company, and staying first on the list for a promotion.

This is not always possible though. There is a point when saying ‘yes’ to everything includes responsibilities that clash with each other, too large a work load, or added pressure to your own family and personal commitments.

The solution to being successful in a corporate career, is learning how to manage your responsibilities, and learning how to say ‘no’ at work, without your employers and co-workers considering that you are lazy or uncommitted.

The real pressures of saying ‘yes’ in the workplace

Employers know the control they have over their employees, their careers, their finances and their progression in life. Unfortunately, their understanding of this often leads to ‘bullying’ tactics, where a supervisor will pressure you into taking extra responsibilities.

The U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey (2007) was the largest scientific survey of bullying in the US. It concluded that bullying in the workplace is 400% more likely than illegal or discriminatory harassment. It places real stress on workers, and workplace bullies are predominately bosses, or people with supervisory power.

The use of bullying, leaves workers with the feeling they always need to say ‘yes’, to demands, for fear of losing their job, losing respect, and failing within their career. If you have huge financial demands, including a mortgage, and a family, saying ‘no’ can be very stressful, and sometimes almost impossible to do.

Being a ‘yes’ person for a high income

Sonia is a 55 year old product manager, who works with a multinational organisation. She has formed  a successful career, and is on a large annual income with bonuses, because she has always been a ‘yes’ person. Her company frequently requires her to travel internationally, and there have been times when she’s carried her luggage with her to the office, just in case she receives a phone call and needs to head straight to the airport.

Sonia says,

I always say yes. My travel is essential for my work, and it certainly does cause me to miss important days such as children’s birthdays and sporting carnivals. I can very rarely agree to anything outside of work, because of my work’s unpredictable nature; however my tendency to always agree to work, means I have been promoted, and I’m on the salary I’m on.

Being a ‘yes’ person to change jobs

Mathew is a telecommunications consultant from Sydney Australia, who works via a contract. He always ensures he agrees to his work demands, because he needs the best reference possible, to assist him with gaining a new contract.

He says,

If I leave a position, with my employer knowing I’ve worked hard, and done my best, they will always give me a good referral. Many times my contracts are forced to end, and my bosses can’t keep me on. If I have worked hard and always followed their requests, they will feel as though they owe me a positive referral into a new company. This is how I get my work.

Learning how to succeed, while still saying ‘no’ at work

Success can still be gained within your employment, while saying ‘no’. If you don’t want your career to be the only highlight in your life, you will need to learn how to balance your priorities, and occasionally say ‘no’, without seeming lazy. The secret is not what you say, but how you say it. This includes your commitment to the conversation at hand, your use of body language, tone of voice, and your dedication to achieving a win/win situation.

Listen attentively

When someone approaches you with a request, show that you are interested. Often, the first sign of extra responsibility is stress, and this can be conveyed to your requestor as negativity towards them, and rejection of their needs. Stay calm, be interested in their new ideas or projects. Show support for what they desire to achieve, and clearly communicate this. Remember, you are not dissatisfied with them or their goals, just your personal ability to help see them through successfully.

Avoid e-mails

If you need to say ‘no’, say it in person, rather than over an e-mail. If this is not possible pick up the phone. Firstly, they will recognise through this that you are making their interests a priority, and are not avoiding contact with them. Secondly, face-to-face and verbal communication provides much more conviction, and e-mail communication can often be misunderstood.

Offer an alternative solution

If you are unable to help, explain that you’d like to see results, but you are unable to help them personally. Clearly and confidently state the reasons you are unable to assist, and offer solutions that don’t involve your commitment.

  • “If I helped you, I couldn’t allocate time for at least 3 months. This looks like a project you need a quick turnaround for, and I can refer you to someone else who may achieve this faster for you.”
  • “I am not the best at this type of work, as it seems you require a specialised approach. If I learned these tasks it would take longer than I could afford. Is there someone you know who already has these skills and could get started ASAP?”
  • “I’d love to help. Do you think we could discuss this next month as I still have to finish xxx projects.”
  • “My other supervisor has asked me to do xxx. I am unsure which is more important. Are you able to arrange the priority between yourselves and notify me of this?”

Announce that you are busy ahead of time

You convey how you should be treated. When you are at work, stay focused and be publicly clear about your priorities. Explain to people that you are committed to achieving xxx, and that you will be unavailable for any other requirements, until a later date. If you act too busy, everyone will recognise this, and avoid piling up those extra pressures.

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