How to Say No to Extra Work and Mean It

By Andy.Walton | A manifesto for improving and maintaining our mental wellbeing.

saying no

Have you ever had a hard time saying no to a new project or task at work? You already have a full plate and the idea of piling an additional item on top seems impossible, but you say “yes” anyway? If this sounds familiar, chances are you’re a woman. Women, in particular, can have a hard time declining to add to their workload, even when they’re overwhelmed. Though it might seem easier to just accept the extra work and move forward, here’s why you should bother going through the effort of sticking up for yourself and saying no, plus how to do it without offending anybody.

For starters, taking on too much can cause everything from elevated stress levels to lower quality of work. “It’s a huge problem because it leads to burnout and inability to focus on the most important things,” explains Kim Scott, CEO of Candor, Inc., and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. If you can’t hone in on your priorities then your effectiveness as an employee goes way down. Aisha Stephenson, VP of People Operations at Quizlet, agrees. “The challenge is that by taking on more, we are not able to focus and can frequently get spread too thin to feel a sense of accomplishment or complete tasks one hundred percent,” she notes.

In itself, not being able to perform to the best of your ability is a good enough reason to turn down extra work, but unfortunately, not everyone recognizes this reasoning when it comes to women saying no. “Research shows that women are more apt to be penalized for saying ‘no’ than men,” explains Scott. “A man who doesn’t help is seen as ‘busy’; a woman is seen as ‘not a team player.’ Women have a harder time saying no to doing additional work not because they are pushovers, but because they get penalized more than men do for saying no.” In the short run, it might seem like a good idea to say yes, but in the long run, it can be a recipe for disaster.

If you’re curious what makes women more likely to say yes to additional projects in the first place, Scott has insight on that, too. “Women often feel that they have to prove that they’ve earned a seat at the table, whether that’s an ‘executive’ table or an ‘entry level’ table. We feel pressure to raise our hands and demonstrate to our managers, peers and direct reports that we are capable of taking on more than falls within our scope of responsibilities.” If you’re feeling this way, it’s important to remember that you were hired for your very specific role. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do things that go outside your job description, but it does mean that you’re not obligated to.

So now that you know why you should take the time and effort to turn things down that you don’t want to do, here are some strategies for getting it done.

1. Be honest and confident.

“If you feel that it’s someone you can’t say no to directly, provide a succinct and honest explanation of the current priorities and deliverables on your plate and offer to help another time,” suggests Jig Grooms, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Epicor Software. Of course, this strategy does require some follow-through. “The best way to build credibility around this practice is to follow up when you have time and ask to help. This way, you establish a good brand as someone who is willing to take on additional work and also able to prioritize what is most important to the business.”

2. Keep it light.

Don’t feel like you have to explicitly teach a lesson in gender biases to every person who unfairly asks you to take something on. “In today’s climate, where gender is such a hot topic, most people feel chagrined when they realize they’ve asked you to do some grunt work because you’re a woman,” explains Scott. Instead of calling them out, show them their error constructively, allowing them to draw their own conclusion. “Recently I was a speaker at a conference for mostly-male technology CEOs,” Scott says. “I was getting myself a water, when a participant came up and asked me to get him a safety pin, assuming I was one of the young female organizers. I said I had no idea where a safety pin was. He was visibly annoyed at my unwillingness to find him a one. I touched him lightly on the arm and adjusted my badge so he could see who I was, and said, ‘Now, Al, how in the world would I know where a safety pin is? Do you know where one is?’ He realized his mistake and I burst out laughing. Relieved, so did he.” Sometimes, a gentle reminder can do more than a lecture.

3. Be flexible and human.

You probably know better than anyone else what you have time for and what you don’t, but that doesn’t mean you should totally disregard the needs and viewpoints of others. When you’re saying no to something, Scott recommends that you “explain why you are saying no, what else you’re working on, and why you think what you are working on is a higher priority for the broader team. It’s not that you’re being selfish. You have to say no to a lot of things to focus on the most important things. But that doesn’t mean you have to be utterly inflexible. Maybe the other person will convince you that their new request is actually more important than what you are working on.” If they manage to persuade you, it’s okay to change your plan. Additionally, it’s a good idea to take the time to listen to the other person even if you know you’re not going to come around to their side of things. This shows them that you care about them and their goals, but ultimately yours need to take precedence.


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