How saying ‘no’ can actually advance your career

How saying ‘no’ can actually advance your career

When I first started in the work force, I felt the need to say ‘yes’ to everything. I thought that saying ‘yes’ was the best way of taking advantage of anything that was thrown my way and the single best way to advance my career.

Unfortunately, I said ‘yes’ to many things I shouldn’t have. I said ‘yes’ to the first job offer I received out of university as a Human Resources Manager for a security firm. I resigned within three months after being physically assaulted by a security guard who the firm proceeded to hire.

I said ‘yes’ to helping a project team in an advertising agency where I worked as a consumer psychologist who proceeded to completely ignore my research recommendations because they contradicted the campaign they wanted to present to the client.

And I said ‘yes’ to entering a public speaking competition where I made it to the national finals and was completely humiliated in front of an audience of 400 professional speakers when the judges gave me scathing feedback about what I was wearing and that I would never get corporate clients dressed in jeans and sneakers (I have since gone on to consult to companies like Google, Disney and Apple – if only they could see me now…still wearing jeans and sneakers).

Looking back, I regret the pressure I put on myself to say ‘yes’. And after interviewing some of the world’s most successful people on my podcast How I Work, I clearly see the value of saying ‘no’ to help get ahead.

We can all do with some practice at saying ‘no’

If you’re a people pleaser like me, saying ‘yes’ is far easier than saying ‘no’. And even the world’s most successful people struggle to say ‘no’.

Mia Freedman receives a lot of requests. As the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of the Mamamia Women’s Media Company, Australia’s number one women’s media brand and the world’s largest women’s podcast network, she is an insanely busy woman.

Freedman used to be terrible at saying no. “Like most women, I wanted people to like me and I wanted to not disappoint anybody,” Freedman told me. “And because I didn’t want to make someone feel bad for the 10 seconds that it would take them to read that I was turning down whatever they wanted me to do, I would say ‘okay’ just to put that off. But then what I would do is buy a whole problem for future me.”

So Freedman found a strategy to help make saying ‘no’ much easier. She started to set rules for herself and change the language she used when saying no.

“Instead of saying ’I can’t’ I say ’I don’t.’ It sounds really subtle but it’s really important. I have rules like: I don’t do black tie functions. I don’t do lunches during the week. I don’t do speaking or charity engagements on weekends.”

By having strict and clear rules and using the language of ‘don’t’, it takes the ‘Should I? Should I not?’ out of the equation.

“I’m one of those people that needs hard and fast rules. Otherwise I find myself negotiating with myself. And that’s exhausting.”

Saying ‘no’ forces you to get clear on your priorities

Burns survivor and all-round motivational guru Turia Pitt is regularly asked to give speeches, but often, they are far off into the future. “I think to myself, ‘Oh, it’s in six-months time, whatever, it’ll be fine.’ And then when the speech is looming , I’m like, ’Oh my gosh, why did I say ‘yes’?’ When I say ‘yes’ to too many things, I end up being really shitty and resentful and not having any time leftover to go for a run or to spend with my family and things like that.”

Instead of falling into the trap of underestimating how busy the future will be and avoiding the short-term pain of saying no, Pitt now asks herself a question before giving an answer. “I ask myself, ‘If this opportunity or event was happening next Tuesday, how would I feel about it? Would I be like, Yes! I cannot wait for that to happen or would I be dreading it?’”

By asking this question, Pitt is helping overcome a key flaw in how humans are naturally wired to make decisions: activities in the distant future seem far more appealing and exciting that those in the more immediate future.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that activities that were scheduled in the distant future were perceived more favourably compared to those in the immediate future. When events and plans are happening around the corner, we are more in tune with potential complications or things that could go wrong, whereas we are less critical when things are in the far-off future.

Pitt’s ‘Next Tuesday’ question helps her focus on how she genuinely feels about the opportunity being presented. By using the Next Tuesday rule, we avoid saying ‘yes’ to opportunities indiscriminately (and underestimating potential downsides), which can be easy to do if you’re a go-getter like Pitt.

Saying ‘no’ will help you waste less time

A couple of years ago, Dom Price was reflecting on the way he was working. Price, who heads up Research and Development and is the resident Work Futurist at Atlassian, attends a lot of meetings.  To say Price loathes meetings is an understatement.

“I was drowning in meetings, forums, committees, catch ups, councils, groups, squads, tribes,” Price recalls. “I felt like everyone was wanting a little bit of me.”

At the same time, Price was trying to work out how to free up more time to do more of what he loved. But his plate was full.

So he tried something rather extreme.

Price deleted every single meeting out of his calendar, accompanied by a note to the meeting organiser that offered one of three options:

  • Option 1 was that the meeting organiser would respond with the purpose of the meeting, Price’s role and responsibility in the meeting, and what specifically they wanted Price to add to it.
  • Option 2 offered the organiser to defend the purpose of the meeting but suggest that someone on Price’s team could fill his role perfectly well.
  • Option 3 suggested that Price or one of his team didn’t need to attend the meeting, or conversely, that the meeting didn’t even need to be held.

Not only did this strategy free up much of his diary, but he was also then able to attend the meetings that did remain knowing the exact role the organiser wanted him to play. Price reported that simply requesting the meeting organiser clarify his role led to a huge reduction in his cognitive load. He now knew whether he was there to challenge, contribute, be a provocateur, or something else entirely.

Saying ‘no’ is what gives you the time to say ‘yes’ to what really matters. So rather than be afraid of saying no as it may give you work FOMO, think of saying ‘no’ as your way of being able to free up time to say ‘yes’ to the things that will truly help progress your career and make a difference.

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