Have We Lost the Ability to Say “NO” at Work?

say-no limited timeOne of the biggest challenges in the modern workplace is work overload.  Too much to do, too little time, not enough resources, not enough energy!

Stress management techniques wisely advise that we need to take back our ability to say “no” when we recognize that we cannot do all that is expected of us.

Tell that to your boss and watch what happens.

We humans have limited supplies of time and energy.  When we have exhausted these reserves, then our interest in related projects also eventually depletes.  We may know this intuitively, but the modern workplace practically demands that we ignore our human limitations and continue to take on more work – or face the consequences.

Throughout my blog posts, I have consistently called for a re-emergence of humanism to find a new (and better) way to work in the modern workplace.  Throughout my career, I have consulted with and coached clients who are frustrated, angry, burned out, and underperforming.  The common thread is the inability, unwillingness, or fear of saying “no.”

Like many of us, I can remember as a young girl that saying “no” to my parents resulted in some form of punishment – or at least “the look” and a very strong reprimand.  Old habits die hard, so I shouldn’t be surprised when we continue to avoid saying “no” in order to avoid displeasing the people in our professional lives.

Although we are not put in “time out” at work, saying “no” to our bosses can lead to some form of direct or indirect reprimand.  Consider what saying “no” to a new assignment can mean to our jobs and careers:

  • We are not viewed as “team players.”
  • Our loyalty to the company is questioned.
  • We are being insubordinate to our bosses – which will not be forgotten in our annual performance reviews.
  • We are being “difficult.”

The tragedy is that saying “yes” to others (especially when we don’t really want to) actually undermines our current and future relationships with that person or organization.  In addition, we are much more likely to experience the negative effects of cognitive dissonance:  we are acting in a way that contradicts how we really feel.  This leads to anger, resentment, and burnout.

Why Saying “No” Can Be a Good Thing

Although saying “no” was grounds for punishment as a child, we are no longer children but adults whose contributions are critical in order for our companies to excel.

So how can saying “no” to an assignment actually be a good thing?

  • Saying “no” can indicate a significant lack of resources that will eventually undermine the success of the assignment.
  • Saying “no” can reinforce the need to better delegate the workload or increase staffing (temporarily or permanently).
  • Saying “no” can benefit customers by keeping their expectations realistic and then delivering on those expectations.
  • Saying “no” can protect the company from litigation arising from illegal actions by employees.
  • Saying “no” (and having that “no” accepted by management) can increase employee commitment and engagement because we are being heard and respected.
  • Finally, saying “no” can protect the organization from negative “group think” and open the door to future innovation and creative solutions.

Unfortunately, many companies view an employee’s “no” as a sign of disrespect, insubordination, and grounds for future discipline – including termination.

But the fear of saying “no” ultimately does nothing to support the health of either the organization or the individual worker.  Not standing up for something that you believe is wrong ensures that the unrealistic demands, disrespectful treatment, and stressful workplace will continue – for you and others.

How to Say “No” at Work

Learning to say “no” can be a challenge for many workers – as equally challenging as learning how to accept a subordinate’s “no.”

How do you create an environment in which an employee’s “no” is viewed positively?

First, always consider Mehrabian’s three channels for effective interpersonal communication:  55% of meaning comes from nonverbal cues, 38% from tone of voice, and only 7% from the words themselves.  Be sure that all three are in alignment.  In other words, don’t say “no” using a hostile tone or defensive mannerisms.

Second, provide a brief rationale for your “no.” Be sure to include a logical reason why you are refusing the request and the potential benefit to the person making that request.  For example, be clear that taking on the new assignment will undermine your ability to successfully meet the deadline for another important assignment.

Third, offer another option to get the work done.  This may include recommending that the assignment be divided among several employees who are experts in their individual project areas so that the increased workload does not become unmanageable for any one individual.

Fourth, don’t say “no” late in the game.  If the project’s due date is near and you had previously agreed to the deliverable due dates, don’t “suddenly” announce that you can’t finish it.  Keep all stakeholders apprised of progress and don’t be afraid to ask for help if there is any indication that the due date might not be met.  It is better to modify plans, rather than never complete them.

Saying “no” at work is hard and many of our past experiences have supported our belief that we should never say “no” at work.  But when we can’t say “no,” we feel out of control – which is a primary factor in the debilitating downward spiral toward burnout.

Learning to say “no” can be very empowering.  It can enhance our professional relationships as well as increase the levels of mutual respect.  Most importantly, it can be the first step in creating a new, more humane, and more productive way to work. Saying “no” to one thing can be the first step to saying “yes” to something much better.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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