How to get ahead at work by saying "no"

Taking on increasing amounts of work without adequate recovery delivers ever-diminishing returns for time invested and puts workers on a sure path to burnout.

Sometimes, the best answer is "no", and it need not come at the cost of your workplace relationships or reputation.

At a glance

  • Saying “No” to extra work can be challenging in tough economic times, but doing so can have benefits for teams and organisations.
  • Being proactive is essential. Anticipate expanding responsibilities and set out priorities to ease the process of saying “No”.
  • It is also important to speak from a place of empowerment, demonstrating the value of your skills and competencies.

Prefer to listen to this story? Here it is in audio format.

You are already stressed and stretched to the limit. The mere thought of being asked to do just one more thing creates a sense of panic.

How do you push back to contain your workload without threatening your career or being labelled difficult, especially in tough economic times, when everyone is trying to do more with less?

This is a dilemma that Andy Johnson, Brisbane-based executive coach, often addresses with his clients.

“Workload stress has always been an issue in the financial services industry, but last year it shifted to being a survival issue. People felt they had to keep taking on more work for the survival of the business, or to keep their jobs for the sake of their own survival,” Johnson says.

The problem is, taking on increasing amounts of work without adequate recovery delivers ever-diminishing returns for time invested and puts workers on a sure path to burnout. Herein lies the value in developing the art of the judicial “No”.

A skill that can be learned

Erin Landells is organisational development manager with mine water remediation company Global Aquatica. She is the first to admit that she is “terrible at saying ‘No’” and takes on too many things, which leaves her continually anxious and stressed.

Over the years, she has identified this pattern as a weakness and has developed effective strategies to prevent overload.

When asked to take on extra work when she is already at capacity, Landells’ go-to response is now, “I’m currently working on X, Y and Z – which one of these do you want me to stop working on, or can wait?”.

“I still don’t find it easy to do, but when I have used this with my managers, it’s been fine!” Landells says.

Be proactive

If you want to be on the front foot about reining in your ever-expanding list of responsibilities, flag this in a conversation with your manager ahead of time, so it does not come as a surprise, recommends Johnson.

“Lead with the positives,” he says. “State how this will benefit the company and benefit you.” If, for example, you want to leave work on time, benefits could include feeling more present and energised when you are at work, or being more strategic about achieving your priorities.

CPA Library resource: Preventing job burnout: transforming work pressures into productivity. Read now.

Demonstrate your professionalism

Joseph Donnelly, university career counsellor and lecturer, has a diverse role that is prone to scope creep, so he often has extra projects come his way. Over time, he has found a way to talk to his manager about what he can and cannot take on without compromising his reputation.

“I shared with my manager how I’m a big picture thinker, so if I get a request, I don’t just think about that piece of work, but how this work relates to, and might impact, everything else,” says Donnelly.

He typically asks  lots of questions about the nature of the work, and then gives himself space to reflect, saying, “Leave it with me, I’ll get back to you”.

On reporting back, Donnelly starts by stating his existing commitments. “Sometimes, the conversation ends there, because it’s clear I have too much on.”

He quantifies the time and resources needed to do the extra work, how that will affect his other work, and explores options such as extending the project timeframe or being relieved of other duties.

Exploring these “grey zones” between a black and white “Yes” or “No” response has been effective for Donnelly. “I’ve never had a situation where I have been forced to take on something I thought was too much,” he says.

Donnelly’s concerns that he might be perceived as the “squeaky wheel” on the team and be overlooked for future projects proved to be unfounded.

“My manager actually appreciated my clarity, analysis and strategic thinking, which helped her own decision-making in the process,” Donnelly says.

CPA Australia podcast: Emotional intelligence is a skill you can learn

Speak from a place of empowerment

The manner in which you express your concerns matters as much as the words themselves, says Cynthia Hickman, a Melbourne-based psychologist who sees many professionals struggling with work pressure.

“Speak from a place of knowing your value and competence, rather than from a place of weakness or being a victim,” she advises.

In some work cultures, pushing back, even when done tactfully, may not be well received. If you suspect that is true for your work situation, Johnson advises taking time to clarify whether you are willing to take the risk.

“Reflect on the reason why you want to say ‘No’ – such as to protect your health, relationships, quality of work or simply to stand up for yourself – and ask if this intrinsic motivation is strong enough to potentially jeopardise your work.”

Hickman and Johnson agree that even when their clients don’t get what they want, many feel much better for having spoken up.

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December 2021
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