Why we keep saying "yes" when we should be saying "no" at work.

If you are worried that if you say "no" at work more often, you may sabotage your career, this article is for you.

Go to the profile of Louise Rodgers
Mar 21, 2019
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Are you the kind of person who says “yes” to everything at work, regardless of your existing workload? Do you even say “yes” even when you know that “no” is the right answer?

If you are, then I hope this series of articles, based on the videos I prepared for Psychologies Magazine during my stint as ‘coach of the month’, will show you how you can say no at work, and still succeed.

You may already know that saying yes to everything can lead to over-commitment, and even anxiety.

Don’t worry, you are not alone. Most of us hate saying no, at work and in our personal lives. Nobody likes the idea of disappointing others, but knowing when and how to say it is one of the most important skills you can learn. 

But when it is used carefully, consciously and with fore thought, using this little two-letter word, far from sabotaging you at work, can actually help you to succeed. 

We are going to begin by thinking about what may be behind the impulse to say yes. Why do we keep saying YES when we should be saying no? Understanding where it comes and how to name it is the first step in learning how to tame it.

The first of these is BECAUSE SOCIETY EXPECTS US TO.

We live in a ‘yes’ culture – we are encouraged to say yes to every new experience. Every new opportunity. We get FOMO if we turn down social invitations, and say yes to every upgrade, the newest model of anything, and the latest fashion. 

But although we can choose how we respond to this yes culture in wider society, for example by making different consumer choices, it can be more difficult to say no if you are bucking a workplace trend. 

What can we do when this yes culture has seeped into the workplace, so that people who say yes to everything are seen as the real ‘go-getters’? 

Understanding more about ourselves, and how to manage our responses, can help.

The second is BECAUSE OF BEHAVIOUR WE LEARN AS A CHILD.

What do we learn about saying ‘no’ when we are small children? As any parent knows it’s one of the first words many babies say. Put your shoes on. NO! Eat your broccoli. NO! Go to sleep. NO! This may lead to ‘no’ being associated in our minds with being uncooperative, or ‘difficult’.

We can see how if we take our inner child to work with us, this may lead us to say yes to things at work, when the answer should be no. 

We don’t want to be seen as difficult. Or uncooperative. We want to show that we are mature and capable, and we think that, by saying yes to everything we are asked to do, we are demonstrating ‘adulting’ behaviour. But the reverse may be true. By saying ‘yes’ we may be compromising other work, or agreeing to deadlines we can’t meet, and ultimately letting someone else down. 

It can help if we ask ourselves; “If I say ‘yes’ to this, what am I going to have to say ‘no’ to?”. Something usually has to give. 

We may be saying ‘yes’ too much BECAUSE WE THINK WE HAVE SOMETHING TO PROVE. 

Have you ever felt that you are about to be “found out” at work and asked to leave the building? Perhaps you are saying yes to things you should be saying no to prove to someone, or to yourself, that you are in the right job?

Feeling that you have somehow faked yourself into your current position is more common than you might think. You may already know that this is called Imposter Syndrome, and frequently rears its head during coaching sessions. 

Taking ownership of your successes can help to beat imposter syndrome. Try making a personal inventory of your most recent individual achievements. And for each, make a note of which of your skills and qualities helped you to succeed.

What strengths did you show? Take a mental step back. What do you notice? Which of your successes are you not owning? How much of it have you put down to “sheer luck”?

Developing more self-awareness about what you are good at, and the strengths you bring to the table, is not an overnight project but being able to internalise your accomplishments is important – and will also give you a clearer idea of the only kinds of things you should be saying yes to in the future. Those that play to your strengths and abilities.

Sometimes we keep saying ‘yes’ BECAUSE WE THINK IT WILL MAKE PEOPLE LIKE US 

People who have imposter syndrome may also be people-pleasers. But all those yesses can lead to burnout. I once left a job I loved because it had become almost unbearably stressful. 

I was definitely a people-pleaser. I was putting other people’s needs, and other people’s careers, before my own. This, and the constant validation of others that came with it, had become a personal habit.

Try asking yourself “Who am I trying to impress by saying yes to this?” 

“Am I saying yes because I just want this person to like me, and not because it is the right thing to say?”.

WE MAY EVEN BE FRIGHTENED OF THE CONSEQUENCES OF SAYING NO

Fear is a powerful driver. At work, it may be fear of saying no that leads to the impulse to say yes....to everything.

But what we are frightened of? Do we say yes because we think that by doing otherwise we may open ourselves to rejection or conflict? Or be seen as a failure? Are we catastrophising the consequences of saying no for example by thinking “If I say no, I may never get that promotion/pay rise or bonus”. 

Perhaps you are a freelancer, and fear that if you say ‘no’ to an extra project may result in that client never asking you to do anything again.

Of course, this may be true. And that is why it is important to take just a few seconds to check in with yourself and see whether, in fact, ‘yes’ is the right answer. 

Try asking yourself “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I say ‘no’ to this?” 

What we need to do is to weigh things up. 

The message I would like you to take away – and before I post the next article on this topic – is to “breathe through” the impulse to say ‘yes’ so that you can be sure that you are making the right decision before you commit yourself!


Go to the profile of Louise Rodgers

Louise Rodgers

Founder & coach, eidyia ltd

The competing pressures of modern life can make it hard to keep a sense of who you are, what you want, and the steps you need to take in order to live your “best life”. I give the individuals and businesses I work with the opportunity to stand back and take stock. A skilled thinking partner to work with while you do this may be all you need in order to find clarity, a renewed sense of purpose and a good view of the road ahead. I call this process reflect, reframe and refocus and I do my best to make sure it is a fun, creative and thought-provoking journey of self-awareness. Before training as a coach with Barefoot, I co-founded and ran my own PR agency. I know what it’s like to build and lead a creative start-up, to juggle multiple projects and to find some balance between work, home and family life. I have found my niche in working with creative individuals and entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. Past clients have included one who runs a ninja training gym, another embarking on a new career as delicatessen owner and a third who now heads up a social enterprise business.

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