'No' doesn't have to be a bad word at work

How many excuses have you invented to avoid saying that two-letter word?

Many people struggle to say 'no' at work, all the while knowing that they will create more stress and havoc for themselves down the road. We've all been there. You may be there now. You make sacrifices for the team, where you take on more and more work, while you privately worry about how you can avoid the avalanche headed your way.

The requests come from all directions. Your manager needs you to drop everything that you're working on in order to help with the latest crisis. Or someone that you really respect asks you to co-sponsor a project that will eat up a lot of your time. And if you lead a team, there are many urgent priorities that compete for your attention every day. Everybody wants apiece of you.

Think of your work life as a daily sequence of multiple choice exam questions that come your way.

On a multiple choice exam, there are usually three tangible options, then a fourth called 'all of the above' - which many students default to when they can't choose between the others. It's no different at work -people often default to 'all of the above' when they are asked to choose between competing priorities. In the moment, it feels like the safe thing todo.

Going for that default button means that you don't have to disappoint anyone. The problem is, 'all of the above' is not sustainable. Because it all backs up on you, those same people end up being disappointed anyway. It's all as predictable as a bad opera, although it's not as entertaining when you're the main character in a tragedy of your own making.

Why is it so hard to say 'no' at work?

People go through some pretty predictable mind games when faced with the choice to say 'no'. This two-letter word can be very difficult to say out loud, especially if you're trying to fit in and be seen as someone who pulls your own weight at work. It feels good when people gush over your willingness to help them out. It's a basic human need to be needed.

Sometimes 'yes' is just an easier choice in the moment -especially when fuelled by the stigma associated with turning people away. You can feel the energy shift in the connection with another person when you try to say 'no'. That's when you start to look for excuses that make it easier for you to cave - also known as rationalisation.

Which of these six excuses has kept you from saying 'no'?

1. I'm too new.

Sometimes you feel uncomfortable about turning people's requests down when you're still new in the role - even more so if you're new to the company. It's not uncommon for the new person to find people waiting to unload stuff onto their plate.

Until you've earned a few stripes, it is implied that you will 'give more' and 'take less' in relation to what the team needs. As the new person who is trying very hard to fit in, the way to give more is to take on more work. That seems the logical way to show how happy you are to be there. That's what a lot of new people do.

2. Not enough clout.

I joined a fraternity when I was in university. It was fully expected that any first year pledge would bend over backwards to tend to their older brothers' chores. The more senior you became in rank, the more work you could push down to the plebes. That was considered the natural order of things in a world where hierarchy meant power.

Of course, that's the reality in a number of organisations too. Even if you're no longer new, you may still feel that you have insufficient rank to push back with any gravitas. It's not as explicit as it was in my fraternity days, but the expectation is the same in companies: you will help your older brothers and sisters with their chores. That's what you do when you don't have enough clout.

3. I'm a good team player.

On most teams, there is a code -very often unspoken - that you won't leave each other hanging out in a vulnerable space. For many, that means dropping everything, or - more likely -adding all the new stuff to a plate already filled to the brim. All for one and one for all. That's an inherent part of team ethos for many people.

There are times when the company is under big stress and it's all hands on deck, for as long as it takes, around whatever is needed. That's the ultimate test of being a team player, where the evidence of commitment is through blood, sweat and tears.

Even when you scale that back to what is 'normal', the pattern is hard to break: people will often take on more work, work longer hours and just push through the stress. Isn't that what a good team player does?

4. People will like me more.

There is just something that feels good about being liked, even for people who claim that it's not important. In the middle of the twentieth century, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed the popular belief that we have a fundamental need to belong - an important part of which is satisfied through affirmation. It feels good to be affirmed.

Many strengths become liabilities when played to excess. It's no different with the need to be liked. If it's extreme, an increased workload usually follows in tow. But when affirmation is important, the rush that comes from being liked is more compelling than the weight of the work that you're pulling behind you. That's why nice guys and gals finish last in some organisations. They can't say 'no.'

5. Busy is good.

This is certainly the case when people sense that value is derived from being busy, rather than being productive. Many team leaders don't realise that 'what they do' is more powerful than 'what they say.' Actions really do weigh more than words. People often adjust their behaviours to mirror what they believe their managers value the most. That includes looking busy.

You can observe this mental frame kick in during periods of uncertainty - like when a new team leader comes in from the outside and starts to form quick views on people. Predictably, people feel more secure if they're seen as being busy. And for some, that translates into saying 'yes' to even more work than is reasonable. But busy is good, so it doesn't matter.

6. I'll get fired.

If you're looking for the mother of all excuses to cave, this is the one. And it certainly doesn't help if there is a recent example of someone who lost their job for pushing back against a tidal wave of incoming work.

Even if that hasn't happened, no one wants to be the hypothetical test case, not when you really need the job. It's easier to absorb more work than risk not having an income. That's really looking at the situation as a black or white choice. There's no grey in there at all.

Challenge your own thinking

If you really don't want to say 'no' to more demands on your time, these six excuses give you a very easy out. Any two or three of them wrapped together can paralyse you. So you don't ever actually have to take any personal accountability for the scenario if you can conveniently use any or all of them as a reason to keep taking more work from people.

Each of those six excuses may be rooted in some reality, but none of them are absolute.

You do have some flexibility in how they play out in your work life. Challenge the assumptions that have kept you from taking more accountability.

If you're new to the team, who says that you aren't entitled to a voice about what gets downloaded onto your plate? Your first three months are critical to your long-term success. You have to stay focused and get some wins on the board. Get your manager involved; it's part of their role.

Clout isn't always about rank; it's also about edge. It's all about leadership, no matter what level you work at. If people keep pushing work at you, it may be time to pull them all together to help you figure out what's reasonable. Empowerment is about having a voice, so start using yours.

If you do have a strong need to be liked, make sure that others don't confuse your eagerness to help as a sign of weakness.

Is a good team player someone who keeps going the extra mile, even though that mile has gotten longer with every incoming request? Or is a good team player someone who asks the tough questions: Why do we allow ourselves to get into vicious cycles of work? How do we stop this?

If you do have a strong need to be liked, make sure that others don't confuse your eagerness to help as a sign of weakness. It's a powerful thing when people both like and respect you. Those aren't mutually exclusive end states. If your thing is to help other people, be smart about your choices.

And your diary is often a reflection of your own thinking. If it's too busy, then your brain probably feels that way too. Is your work both effective and efficient? Are there activities that occupy a lot of your time and energy, yet add very little value to the team's bottom line success? Stop doing them.

Finally, if you fear that pushing back on the volume of incoming work will get you fired, there's another way to think about it. Not pushing back will also get you fired. If the outcome is the same, at least have the satisfaction of knowing that you tried.

Originally written for, and published in the New Zealand Herald.

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A headshot of Dr. Harold Hillman