I never have enough time! Pt. 3: Can you say “no” without getting fired?

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Janet is an Executive VP for a company with a culture of not saying “no” to meetings, projects, and requests from high-level colleagues or the CEO, Mathilda. While conducting a 360 feedback process for Janet recently, I interviewed Mathilda about Janet’s performance. When I asked Mathilda what she thought Janet’s greatest opportunity for growth was, she said, “Janet needs to push back more. When I ask her to do anything, she always says ‘yes’. But she doesn’t always really have the time to go a good job on some projects. Rather than just telling me that, she will take it on and sometimes deliver poor quality, or be really late on a deadline. I wish she would learn to say ‘no’ when I’m asking too much. I don’t always know, and I rely on my EVP’s for that kind of feedback.”

I heard similar feedback from peer colleagues and direct reports for Janet. But this isn’t due to some character flaw or doormat syndrome on Janet’s part. She’s actually quite outspoken. So what’s the problem? The culture of the organization creates pressure to say “yes” all the time, so Janet has stopped assessing the merits of anything she’s asked to do and simply tries to find a way to deliver.

We hear elements of Janet’s story much more often than you might think. Saying “no” to requests simply isn’t a consideration for many people at any level in an organization.

That is a recipe for disaster.

As with most things, there is an art to this. It’s not clear cut with hard and fast rules that apply to every situation. It requires a few important elements.

  1. Assess the situation. When it comes to meeting requests, don’t automatically say “yes”. Evaluate whether or not you need to be there. Who is inviting you? What are they hoping your contribution will be? Was it a courtesy invite so you wouldn’t be left out of the loop? Is it important to your professional life that you attend? Perhaps most importantly, does this meeting help you make progress on your goals and priorities?
  2. Defend your priorities. If a request to take on another task, project or meeting doesn’t help you make progress on your goals and priorities, it is critical that you find a way to defend them. For more on gaining clarity about those priorities, read our post about it.
  3. Frame your response. Momma always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” I think some of us have taken that sentiment to mean we can’t say “no” because it may not be “nice”. That’s just not true. There is always a way to be diplomatic and respectful while still standing up for yourself and your priorities. Asking questions is a great strategy to help you fully understand motivations and thinking without making assumptions. It also often gives you clues about how to frame your response.

Pushing back or saying “no” can be uncomfortable (or downright painful for some). It may go against how you were raised or your company culture. But if your ultimate goal is to be successful, to produce high-quality results, and to meet deadlines, sometimes you have to do it anyway. If it’s your boss you’re pushing back against, it should always be acceptable for you to review your priorities with him/her and ask if something should be adjusted.

Henry Cloud said, “You get what you tolerate.” Think on that.

What do you think? Have a different experience? Want to share your insights? We would love to hear from you. Leave us a comment or find us on social media. Stay safe out there, and be kind.

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