Moving throughout my career, I found myself faced with so many opportunities and asks that I thought would make or break my career, from saying yes to taking on extra tasks when my workload was already burdensome, to helping other colleagues out when their workloads were just as bad, and even taking on more responsibility to “prove” myself to leadership that I was worthy of my job and a promotion in the future. While some of these yes moments did make my career a success and put me down a transformational path to more in my career, often I was left reflecting on these moments and unable to see the payoff and benefit to overloading myself with more out of fear of saying no.
As young, or generally new, employees, we often fear turning down opportunities or requests because of an anxiety over the ‘what if’ scenarios we may create in our heads (i.g.: ‘what if this is my big break’, ‘what if I say no and my boss uses this against me’), and because we may worry that saying no means others may think less of us or that we are not a team player. As our career develops and our longevity in our industry begins to build, those fears don’t typically disappear, instead, they often linger and transform into guilt because we have been on the other side of an opportunity/request in our career.
As a society, we often misconceive saying no as saying never to our colleague or boss, when, in actuality, saying no to one request means saying yes to something else– and sometimes that something else is you. Burnout is a costly pandemic for corporate America and our mental health- costing corporations roughly $300 billion per year– and unlearning the falsehoods of what saying no means is a large step to taking more control over our careers and our personal lives, one ‘no thank you’ at a time.
While saying a blunt ‘no thanks’ to your boss is not an option for all of us, there are ways we can choose our additional opportunities and duties more strategically throughout our careers without losing our much needed network connections and, most importantly, our jobs. Before you even begin firing off responses- verbally or written- step back and reflect on the ask that is in front of you and work towards an understanding within yourself to define why you would want to take on the extra task (such as an extra project, more responsibility, or even something such as attending another networking/work event) and if the added mental and physical investment will payoff for you and your career (will it build needed connections, skills, or desired exposure?). If your only strategy behind taking on what is being asked of you is that you’re worried about what others may think of you, you can still turn down the request in a way that shows that you’re a team player, hard worker, and invested in the good of the company (reminder, you can never control others feelings about a situation or you, you can only explain your intent and allow them to form their own thoughts and beliefs). Additionally, if you’re trying to figure out how you can shift your entire schedule and cram more in your day to take on an extra task for someone of high influence, you need to ask yourself this- would it really be beneficial to your career for this person of influence to see the burnt out and stressed out version of you, instead of the best of you? The answer is probably no.
Saying no does not require a grand gesture, extravagant speech, or tons of excuses and apologies. Keeping your no short and sweet helps you avoid invalidating yourself and providing the opportunity to someone else to cut you off and attempt to turn your no into a yes. If an explanation is needed (such as when your boss asks you if you can add just one more project to your roster), quickly pointing out what your capacity and workload looks like is adequate in many instances. Otherwise, for tasks not directly related to your existing job duties and career path, such as office housework (e.g., planning another birthday party or work luncheon), simply stating “At this time, I don’t have the capacity for that” is sufficient.
Turning down a request or opportunity presented to you is the perfect time for you to flex your networking skills and tap your associates on the shoulders and provide them the opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn new skills (or for Brad to finally be the one to buy the birthday cake). Just because you are saying no to an ask does not mean you are saying “it’s never going to happen” to the requestor, all that you are saying is ‘not right now’ or ‘not with me’. Offering up alternative resources, and even an alternative timeline with you, helps the requestor in getting their needed task done, while also demonstrating that you’re a problem solver and team player who is able to breathe easier knowing their load isn’t getting any heavier this time.
Treating asks and inquires in your professional life as business transactions instead of emotional/personal burdens and favors helps alleviate much of the anxiety and stress we feel when a colleague or boss asks for a hand. Asking yourself what the professional benefit is to taking on the extra labor, checking yourself when you begin to take on too much (especially out of guilt) just to appease others opinions, and turning a no from you into an opportunity for someone else, create a less emotional and burnt out environment for you and your colleagues (because we all know our stress affects others) to thrive in. Setting boundaries in your career early on, and frequently, is imperative to your success, and learning when and how to say no is the first step.