Why You Need To Say 'No' At Work (Hint: Your Work Will Get Better)

How to say no at work

Here’s a familiar scenario: You’re up to your ears in projects. Despite this, your boss comes up with a new initiative and is asking you to spearhead it, knowing full well you’re already overloaded. You somehow ignore the internal screaming inside your head and, to your own disbelief, you hear yourself saying yes to this request. Why?

You may be a people pleaser, but there are a few psychological reasons why you always agree to help out a coworker, or rather, avoid turning down their requests—even when you already have a stacked to-do list. Let’s explore them.

Seeking Approval Is Scientifically Proven

Despite it looking like blatant self-sabotage, you are actually hardwired to say “yes” to requests, even if you don’t want to. You can blame human nature for your constant need to acquiesce to others.

This is because evolutionarily, it was beneficial for humans to live, hunt, and work together in large groups. Staying within the group increased the odds of survival thanks to shared resources, food, and an easier chance of finding “the one” (as far as dating went back then).

As a result, humans (even as far back as hominids) learned to adopt behaviors that were agreeable to a group dynamic. If someone was perceived as hostile or combative, they risked being ostracized from the group and subsequently, its shared resources. Guess which “agreeable” human trait was developed for survival in the group? Behavior that earns approval from others.

people pleasing at workImage source

Approval-seeking actions are still alive and well in modern human behavior. Hence your pesky inability to say no to your boss: You are actually programmed to want to please people, because acceptance is perceived as a survival mechanism. Saying no to requests makes you think you will be perceived negatively, thus your inclination is to avoid doing so.

You Underestimate Your Own Workload

It’s not just evolution causing your plate to get too full. It’s also a matter of your eyes being larger than your stomach—or, in scientific terms, a cognitive bias called the planning fallacy.  

Multiple studies confirm that humans are notoriously over-optimistic of the time it will take for them to complete tasks. In one study, students were asked to estimate the date of completion for a project. On average, students  were a whopping 30 days early in their estimation of when they’d be done.

The planning fallacy can also be attributed to the mental acrobatics you do when your aforementioned evolutionary instinct is just dying to say yes, despite all evidence to the contrary. It might sound something like,

“Well it will be fine to say yes to this because I only have 4-5 other things on my plate, and they all should be quick to finish.”

Unfortunately science suggests you might be off on this estimate. And those items on your to-do list are thus again pushed off to another day.

Saying Yes Is Actually Saying No (To What Matters)

The reality, and what you may not realize, is saying yes to another project means you’re effectively saying no to the tasks you already need to complete. When you say yes to something new, you’re not thinking about the impact it will have on your existing work.

The highly successful (and notoriously shrewd) Steve Jobs aptly sums up the point that “focusing is about saying no,” when he explains to a disgruntled employee at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference why he decided to kill a project the employee spent many months toiling over:

In effect, focusing on what matters, and not just what’s in front of you, is the key to a more cohesive workload, and ultimately a better end result.

Not only that, you need to be conscious of your own time management. Every time you are saying yes to a new project, you also may be saying no to something in your personal life. Will you need to work extra hours, thus forgoing evening plans, or time with your family?

So, how does knowing all this help you to rein in the requests and let you get back to the tasks you actually want to focus on? Here are some frameworks to adopt that can help you combat your urge to say yes, and harness the power of just saying no.

In effect, focusing on what matters, and not just what’s in front of you, is the key to a more cohesive workload, and ultimately a better end result.

The DOC Framework For Just Saying No

Next time you’re presented with a brand new, shiny, potentially time-consuming request, use the DOC framework to assess whether it’s really worth your time:

D. Distraction from day-to-day: First and foremost, is the new request going to be a distraction from your business-as-usual responsibilities? Ask yourself whether the request might be a complement to tasks you’re already doing or a complete detour into another initiative. Remember that distractions, especially those that force you to context switch, are doing nothing for your cognitive load and ability to get anything done.

O. Objectives (or OKRS) related: Many teams outline yearly or quarterly goals as a way to align higher-level objectives to the individual tasks each team member is completing. Some examples of longer term objectives might be, “Grow website traffic by [X]%,” or “Develop a customer portal as a means to get direct feedback.” Individual projects and your day-to-day functions should fall under these initiatives so that your work directly impacts the business (and thus benefits your career, too). Ask yourself if the new request could fit into one of your objectives. If so, it might be worth taking on, even if it is a potential distraction from the day-to-day. If it doesn’t fit with an objective, give it the axe.

C. Consider the upside: If the request doesn’t fit an objective, is there another potential upside for doing it? Perhaps you are looking to transition to new responsibilities, and this new task will help demonstrate your capabilities. Currying relationship favor could be beneficial, and after all, you are genetically predisponsitioned to want to. But be careful not to fall down the people-pleaser path of self destruction. Also ask yourself, will you learn something? And always remember: If there is no upside, why do it?

These parameters might help you when you’re put on the spot to take something on and you’re struggling to find a reason why you shouldn’t, even though you don’t want to. Remember that it’s okay to want to be agreeable, but only if it doesn’t put your own wellbeing and productivity at risk.

The power of saying no is freeing, and the more you exercise your right, the more comfortable it will feel. So go forth and just say no.

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