Best of IdeaCast: Saying No to More Work – Harvard Business Review

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

The world of work is always changing – which is why on this show, we’re always trying to bring you the latest research and thinking on management, innovation, leadership, and career-building.

But there are some best practices that don’t change much at all – largely because we’re all still human.  At a moment when we’re a lot of us are feeling pretty overwhelmed – and maybe having trouble communicating it — especially over email, slack, and Zoom – we wanted to re-share one of our favorite past episodes.

It’s one where we look at how to say no when someone asks you to do more work – whether it’s a boss, peer, or client.

How do you stop adding things to your plate – without making anyone mad?

Check out this Best of Ideacast with former host Sarah Green Carmichael, and Karen Dillon, the author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. I hope you enjoy it – and that it does you some good in the coming weeks.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So today, we’re talking about a topic probably most of us have faced at some point in our work lives, which is saying no to more work. And yet even though we may have faced this a lot, it’s still hard to say no to a new assignment.

Just in the beginning, to avoid giving kind of the knee jerk no or the knee jerk yes, how should we be assessing these requests before we decide what to say about them?

KAREN DILLON: Well, the key thing you said there was before. You should take time. It’s really easy in the moment to kind of panic with something that looks like extra work, and imagine all the reasons that you can’t possibly. But I really advise you to take a minute to think about it, if you can actually say, can I just look at my schedule and get back to you, or can I think about it and talk to you this afternoon? Or could we discuss what that might involve?

All those things allow you a little bit of time to take a step back and actually consider first, can I really do this? Everybody, I think, as we continue to get better and better at our jobs, we should be able to be more and more efficient with our time. So your instant reaction may be, no, I can’t. But maybe when you think about it, I can.

That’s the first thing. The second thing is, think about what that does for you. Is it an interesting assignment? Is it an assignment that might put you in the path of people who you haven’t worked with, and you’d like to work with? Is it an assignment that shows your manager has trust in you, or is stretching your responsibility?

There could be a lot of good reasons to take on a little extra work, even though it might feel like a panic first reaction. But you should absolutely think through before you say yes or no, and then proceed to figuring out, how can I possibly do that?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What if you are someone who often defaults to yes? I mean, in that case, it sounds like some of those situations might be geared toward a person who often says no right away, when maybe they should be saying yes. But what if you’re someone who just always says yes too often?

KAREN DILLON: I think the same rules apply. And they’re equally important for you to take a step back and say, all of those things. if I’m only going to be able to say yes to a certain number of extra things on my pile– and those are always hard to decide– is this one that is so important to my boss that I need to [INAUDIBLE] and let this be one thing that I do do, even though I probably don’t have that much time to do it.

Is this one that gives me new opportunity? Is this one that’s going to put me in the path of interesting people to work with? If those things aren’t the case, then I think you have, again, having stepped back and thought about it, then I think you think about how not to say yes to that. So same thing. Default and think about all of the pros and cons of what you’re being asked to do, before you instantly go to whatever your reaction might be.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So if on reflection you ultimately do decide that it’s actually the right thing to decline this request, what are some good, straightforward ways to say no that don’t sound mean, but also don’t sound wishy-washy, and sort of leave it unclear what you’ve said?

KAREN DILLON: I think this may sound really basic. But I think it’s really important to practice saying no. So many of us, especially people who are high achievers naturally, get used to the institutional yes, right? We say yes, because we’re a team player. We can do it. So it’s easy for that to trip off your tongue. And then what’s way worse is thinking about the consequences of that yes.

Flip that in your mind. Think about it. How do I say no so that the consequences are not going to be awful down the line? So you need to actually kind of practice privately in a room, think about two or three bullet points of what you’re going to say. A wishy-washy no makes the person think they still have a chance. An exaggerated, aggrieved no makes the person feel bad for asking you, and they shouldn’t have to feel bad for asking you.

A no that is kind of a false hope, you know, like maybe, kind of, also makes a person feel bad. I think you need to think about how to maintain the relationship with the person, how to be firm, but diplomatic and kind that you can’t. And think about ways that the no doesn’t have to feel bad to the other person.

That might be, for example, I can’t, but I would be happy to be a sounding board for you, or if I could look at a first draft of something, I’d be happy to do that. There’s a blanket binary yes/no. And there is something in the middle, I can’t take the bulk of that, but let me find other ways to help you, that soften the blow without changing your answer, really.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So if one of the issues here is that you simply have too much on your plate, is it ever a good idea to simply say, I’m sorry, I’m just too busy? Is that phrase going to work, or should you find it a different way to say it?

KAREN DILLON: I think there’s a different way to say it, but getting at the same thing. I’m assuming this is a superior, or a manager, or someone who probably has the right to ask you to say yes. But not unrealistic or unreasonable for you to say, can I discuss with you what I have on my plate? And together, let’s walk through it and see if there’s anything I can take off, or put as a lower priority, or change a deadline.

A good manager shouldn’t want you to feel overwhelmed. A good manager should want you to be able to find ways to say yes to things that are important enough that they’re asking you to add it to your plate. And a good manager should help you walk through that.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So it’s interesting, because there’s obvious implications there, versus talking to a boss versus talking to a peer or someone else. I’m wondering if there’s also differences if you are a man or a woman. If you have to sort of approach the no a little differently? Are women expected to say yes more to helping out around the office kind of requests?

KAREN DILLON: That’s an interesting question. I think women do say yes more, just as an anecdotal observation. And also apologize more for saying no than men. These may be unfair stereotypes, but my experience tells me they’re not. And I think that as a woman being asked, it’s pretty important to not have to apologize for your no, just because your no is as good as anyone else’s no, but you also have to think about, how do you, again, kindly, firmly, and diplomatically say no in a way that makes clear it’s a genuine no, and you’re not hostile to the person who just can’t accept that request at that time.

That’s another good thing to practice. Women use all those cue words, right? Just, I’m really sorry. You can be something approaching sorry without starting off with guilty eyes and, I’m really sorry just for daring to say no to something you genuinely don’t have time to do. But again, if you leave the person with the feeling that you’re still on their team, just this particular thing you can’t do, that’s OK. I think that’s a reasonable way to navigate that.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK. Now, I want to ask a little bit about what if you have a subordinate asking you to do something, and they’re kind of reverse delegating? So you’ve asked them to do something, and maybe they keep coming back to you with questions, or is this something that you could take on? How do you push it back on them to get them doing it, if they seem to be kind of reverse delegating back onto you?

KAREN DILLON: I can imagine that is actually quite common. And I think a lot of, managers probably myself included, would do the mental math of saying, you know what? It’s going to take me two hours to explain this to you. I could do it in an hour. I’ll do it.

But as a manager, you should know that’s a really bad decision long-term. You absolutely have to help people who are working for you have the confidence to do, give them the chance, know there’s a learning curve, and even say to them, it might be quicker for me to do this, but I really want you to learn. And I’m going to help you learn, but I’m not going to do it for you.

Come to me with questions. Come to me with challenges. I will check in with you. I will find a way to support you without doing it for you. And I know you can do this.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: What if you have, conversely, a subordinate who says no quite freely, and you sort of want to push them to not only not reverse delegate to you, but to really be more of a sort of a yes person? A team player, someone who will actually take on more work? And you, as their manager, think they ought to have the capacity to take on more. Can you sort of override someone else’s no?

KAREN DILLON: I think you have to look to yourself as the manager first to say, how have I set the tone that this is the way that they feel? I think some people might reasonably see my job description as X, Y, and Z. I do this. I do this well. I don’t understand why you would be asking me to do more. So it’s your job as a manager, I think, to explain– and maybe that’s a couple of conversations before you completely change the no culture– of saying, we expect you to grow.

And this is all of our jobs. We expect that you get better at them as you go on. There will be some things that will be higher priority, and some things that are a lower priority. Here’s what I need you to do. Maybe 80% of your work is fixed, but I need you to have flexibility 20% of the time.

Say that out loud. Have a good, healthy conversation with the person about it, and then keep helping them. They’re going to naturally want to say no if that’s the kind of person that they are. But keep helping them by, let’s move this off. That can wait till Thursday. Can you put this at the top of your pile?

Do we have different expectations about the quality of work this needs, versus the quality of that? Help them navigate their own pile, and make clear that you do expect them to do it, and give them positive feedback when they do it well. And give them constructive criticism when they don’t.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK. Now, that was a very helpful answer. But I also realized that I veered slightly from our main topic, which is how to say no to more work. So just to sort of bring us back to that, if you are the person who is being regularly requested to do more by other people, you can sort of get better at saying no on sort of one-off requests.

But if you realize like, this is actually something I deal with all the time, is there kind of a way to either, I guess talk to your manager, or reset expectations throughout the company? Like, hey, we can’t always go to Susan when we have this problem. Is there a way to have a bigger conversation, so you don’t have to say no quite so often?

KAREN DILLON: It’s an interesting question. And I guess if you were that person that people come to all the time expecting the yes, I would caution you to not get rid of that feeling about you so quickly, because that says to me that a lot of people trust you, a lot of people consider you a go-to person. A lot of people consider you incredibly competent.

So those are valuable things. So if you want to be careful not to draw artificial boundaries too quickly. On the other hand, I think it’s a good conversation to have with your manager. I get asked all these things. Are you happy with this balance? Are you happy?

Sometimes the manager can run some interference. And I think, again, practicing the no. I’ve got X, Y, and Z priorities. I could help you next month, but not this month. You can still be part of that culture of, I’m a yes person with your manager’s blessing. I always think the more your manager supports– you and he or she are on the same page, supports what your goals and priorities are, the easier it’s going to be for you to enforce.

And sometimes, that person can run interference for you. That person can go to the head of x department, asking you to do y. Sarah’s off-limits for the next month. She’s absolutely free after she finishes this big project. But we can help. And I think that’s OK. But I think more than not, it’s a good thing that people want to come to you.

So just get better at the yes’s and the no’s personally when you can. Because you don’t want the day to come when nobody asks you to do the things that might actually be interesting, and stretch you, and exciting to be part of.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: OK. So I’m wondering now, both in your experience as a manager and in the course of doing research for the Guide to Office Politics, did you run across common mistakes people made? Are there sort of ways people have said no to you, or ways you heard about people saying no in your research where you were just like, ugh, that just is like nails on a chalkboard. Why would anyone ever try to say no that way? What should we be avoiding?

KAREN DILLON: I can tell you what personally used to bother me is when someone would say no, maybe entirely reasonably to be honest, but as a manager I had a problem, and I needed to solve it, and if I went to someone to help me, if their reaction was kind of annoyed or mad, why are you coming to me, again, it made me feel like you’re abandoning me when I have a problem. It’s not that that wasn’t a reasonable answer, but sort of acting as if they’re put upon by the request.

You’re not upon by being asked. You’re put upon, I suppose, if you do it, and it’s really hard. So just remember that your manager is trying to solve a problem. And it’s probably not personal. And they were hoping you were going to solve it. But as long as you don’t make them feel bad for asking, it’s going to go a lot better than if you kind of have a sour, grumpy response to it. And then they’re not going to want to ask you again, and that’s not a good thing career-wise down the line.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, it’s interesting also that you sort of tied it to overall career arc. Because I do think there are phases in a person’s career where– especially in the beginning, one of the pieces of advice that I was given early on is say yes to everything. And that’s a common piece of advice for people early in their careers. And it’s one that I personally found worked really well.

But then as you move through your career, you start to get to a point where you can no longer do that. So how do you make the most of saying yes to everything early in your career, but know also that you’ll be evolving, and you’ll have to, if you stay in the same organization, evolve over time with maybe the same people to being more of a maybe person?

KAREN DILLON: That’s a good way to think about it, I think, actually. Well, as you are evolving and getting better at all those things, I think you have a good eye yourself on which things are thankless, and which things are good opportunities, and which things are just your turn to take one for the team.

I think being more and more guarded about taking the thankless things– a lot of times people get asked repeatedly to do things that end up feeling thankless. They’re administrative, or they’re doing something that no one’s going to really be aware of except for the person that asked you.

Over time, get better at saying no to those things. Because a lot of times, people just do it just because it’s easy to ask you, and you always say yes. But it’s actually not doing the organization any favors by solving a problem that no one else can ever solve, or always being a go-to person. You haven’t figured out the layers of people who can work on that problem, or solve something.

I think it’s better to be really discriminating about the things that are not high priority, not high glory, not stretching you, and saying no maybe two out of 3 times, out of three times, as you get going further in your career?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah, it does sound like, though– I, mean would you agree that basically, when you’re just starting out in your career, it’s not a good idea to say no to things a bunch of times?

KAREN DILLON: I would never do that, honestly. If I could possibly find a way to do it in my own career that involves sometimes nights and weekends, and all things that are not necessarily reasonable for any employer to expect, but I was so eager to learn– and also the people who ask me to do things, a lot of times, they knew I probably was doing them a personal favor, or was helping them with something that was difficult for them. That stuff pays off in the long run.

You build relationships with people by helping them sell problems. They become people that you can go to a favor. I don’t regret any of that stuff. When I have the time in my life to do it, it’s a really great way to get exposed to a lot of people, and learn a lot of things. Actually, one of the first assignments I ever took was I was working for a magazine where you got paid extra if you worked on this really complicated newsletter about mergers and acquisitions.

I didn’t know anything about it. I had to learn so much. I had to work nights and weekends. But it led to all kinds of opportunities, because I was a person who said yes to learning something that was really hard, and producing something that was hard, and no one really wanted to do. It was kind of a thankless job.

That led me to having great opportunities in my career at that organization after that, because I demonstrated how quickly I could learn a complex subject.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Well, that’s also a really interesting example of how saying yes to something that wasn’t very sexy really helped you and helped your career. I think some of the stuff, especially unfortunately according to the research, women get asked to do is stuff like, can you order the cupcakes for this meeting? Or can you help with the lobby design committee, or something like that, that’s really not–

KAREN DILLON: I think that’s a totally different thing. And I think you should be really careful to not say yes to that stuff. And/or maybe the diplomatic way is, can I invite Adam to do this with me? Can we do it together? Can I pick a partner? You can subtly make clear, I’ll do it this time, but I’m not doing it as a woman. I’m doing it as a team member. And let’s bring in some more team members. I think that’s really important.

And a lot of times, people are unwitting. They don’t realize they’re thinking of me that way. They’re asking you to get the cupcakes, or the coffee, or whatever. It’s a subtle way to say, don’t always default to women. Don’t always default to me. But you can still be solving the problem in the short-term. If that persists, I actually would speak to your manager about that.

Do you realize that nine out of 10 times, you’ve asked one of the women in this department to cater the party, or whatever it is.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So interesting. I’m wondering now is there a time that someone has said no to you where you felt like, wow, that person is really good at saying no. Like, is there a no-sayer that you actually admire?

KAREN DILLON: Many people have said no to me over the years, actually. And I’m not thinking of too many bitter ones, so I think a lot of people are not that bad at it. I think just mentally, personally getting over the guilt of saying no, goes so far. Because when you say no without guilt, you’re just communicating. You’re not bringing a whole bundle of guilt that you then hand off to the other person. The other person feels bad for asking you.

I think just being clear, not giving false hope. I guess don’t ever say no because you’re too busy, and then let me see you hanging out at the coffee machine for a really long time, or leaving early, or long personal phone calls. Those are the kinds of things where the no is bad.

But if you’ve been straightforward with me, and we’ve talked about it, and I feel like I understood why you said it, and we had a chance to at least discuss it before it was final, I’m OK with that, I think. But again, try to say yes enough times that the person doesn’t see you as a Mr. and Ms. No.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yeah. It’s interesting that you mentioned kind of the hanging out by the coffee machine. Because I think there’s forms of work that would be the equivalent of that too. Like, if you are too busy to do something and say no, but then you’re the person who sends the long email replying to some sort of only loosely tangential email conversation, where do you find the time to write that?

KAREN DILLON: Yeah. It is. The [INAUDIBLE] are important. And it may be that it’s somehow you worked extra time to do that, or you came in early. But just bear in mind that because there are some personal feelings involved in saying no to someone, they’re going to be looking at you to make sure that they– it’s a trust thing. Do they believe that you said no genuinely? And if it didn’t feel like you were crazy busy, they may not believe you the next time.

So just keep that in mind. Be sensitive to if you’ve said something, it should be true. And if you’ve said something and it turns out really kind of it isn’t true, I might even go back to the person and fess up. I wasn’t as busy as I thought. Can I help now? I’m really sorry.

Next time, I’d like to be on the project. Please come. I misgauged my workload, something. I think that’s important. Again, candor and communication goes so far, as long as it’s done without the emotional component to it.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: Yes, that’s great advice. OK. Now I feel like we’re almost out of time, but I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t get us to talk a little bit about the bigger backdrop here. We are in an economy, and a world, and a time when a lot of people feel like they’re working all the time. They’re always plugged in. I mean, how do you see this kind of interpersonal, small sort of managing yourself skill of being able to manage your boundaries and say no, as maybe part of a way of addressing this bigger problem that we read so much of overwork, long hours, bad boundaries, people burning out. I mean, does it relate back up to that 50,000 foot view in some way?

KAREN DILLON: I think it does. And I think you should set personal boundaries. And maybe they’re time boundaries. Maybe it’s 8 o’clock at night on. There’s probably no material difference between responding to something at 8 o’clock and 8:00 the next morning.

Figure out what your boundaries are, and try to abide by them. I know once one of my employees said to me that when I would send emails over the weekend, because it psychologically made me feel better that I was on the problem– and I was getting it off, and then I was kind of like, check done. I’m not worrying about that now.

One of my employees mentioned that when I did that, it made them feel anxious that they had to do the same thing in return on the weekend, and we’d have a volley back and forth. And I never intended it to be that at all. And so after she said this, I never sent an e-mail knowingly to an employee on the weekend again. You can send them and put them in the time stamp so they go out Monday morning.

There are things you can do to make sure that you’re not sort of implying that everyone’s boundaries should be the same, and keep your own personal boundaries, so that there is some personal time. One of the best pieces of advice a female superior gave to me when she had a child for the first time, which is “start as you mean to go on.”

Meaning, set expectations. I leave at 6:30 every day, and I will have all the e-mails responded to you by 8:00 tomorrow morning. But I’m going to do this. And the more you set the pattern, the more people will come to accept it. And they won’t scheduled meetings that they just expect you to be in at 6:35, or whatever. Start and continue and be reliable, but your boundaries can be ones that people come to know as well. And I think that’s pretty important to do.

ALISON BEARD: That was former IdeaCast host Sarah Green Carmichael, speaking with former HBR editor and author Karen Dillon.

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Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.