Saying “no” at work is hard. You know the reasons it’s important to say no, but you want to feel like a team player, or your boss asked you, or just want people to like you. So you say yes – and you keep saying yes and now you’re overworked and not able to concentrate of what really matters. There is a lot of good behind a “yes,” of course. But too much yes when other people ask tends to translate into not enough time for your work or yourself. In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant points out that “high achievers tend to be Givers.” However, he says, not all Givers are successful. Givers tend to be concentrated at the high end – and the low end. Saying yes to everything that comes your way is neither possible nor desirable; on the low end of success are the givers who forget to attend to their own self-interest. So what should you say yes to in order to make sure that everyone gets to most from it? How can you give “well”?


First, specialize. Choose the things you’ll say yes to when people ask – things you stand out at or things you particularly enjoy. By having ‘specialties,’ you’ll find people will start coming to you more for those things and less for random tasks. Second, try to consolidate your giving into a chunk of time that really helps someone else and is less disruptive to you. So rather than getting up every 25 minutes “just take a look at this part of the report” as the person writes it, tell your co-worker you’ll put aside two hours when he’s finished so that you can review it all at once. Thirdly, say yes in ways that “reinforce your vital relationships.” These relationships are defined by you. They’re the ones that give you exposure to things you want to explore and help advance your career as well as your self. Vital relationships aren’t about quid pro quo, so don’t say yes with a checklist of things you’ll get for it.


Saying yes strategically means that people will start coming to you less often for tasks outside of that realm. Nonetheless, there will still be times you have to say no. You’ve made a list of your “yes” specialties; make a list of the nos. A lawyer I know says yes when asked to help with editing and drafting briefs, but always says no when asked to help with research. It’s not her strength and takes her a long time to accomplish very little. If you’re nervous about saying no, have a stock answer. Keep it short and try not to email it; tone in email is easily misconstrued. So use the phone or drop by the person’s office.


There’s one time that the rules of yes and no don’t apply as readily – when your supervisor asks you to do something. If you’re swamped and really want to or need to say no, ask to sit down with him and “illuminate your constraint.” Go through your list of projects and tasks and ask your supervisor how you should handle the additional work and how you should re-arrange your priorities during the project. It may not always get you out of the work (nor should it) but doing this should help keep your workload manageable.


Learn to say yes better and you’ll find that no is not only easier, but less necessary.

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