If only I had known how hard it was to say “no” to someone. Based on the response that my post about declining things had gotten I’d say there are a lot of opinions on the subject. Some of them were positive and talked about how hard it is to decline things. Others told me I was stupid because you can’t say no to your boss. I did, however, get a direct message from Paul Lampron (@Networkified) that said I should have a follow up post about saying yes in a responsible manner.
The first thing you have to understand about the act of asking something is that we’re not all wired the same way when it comes to saying yes. I realize that article is over a decade old at this point but the ideas in it remain valid, as does this similar one from the Guardian. Depending on your personality or how you were raised you may not have the outcome you were expecting when you ask.
Let me give you a quick personal example. I was raised with a southern style mentality that involves not just coming out and asking for something. You may have seen this expressed as excessive small talk when you are trying to ask for help. You may feel frustrated that the person that is asking you for something doesn’t come right out and ask for it. You may not understand that this person is trying to feel out your emotional responses before asking a question so they’re almost assured to get a positive answer.
Apply that knowledge to the opposite situation. What if the person that has a hard time come right out and asking for something is trying to interpret a request from someone else? Are they going to accept it for what it is? Or are they going to apply their own knowledge to the situation and assume that the person must be asking for something very important because they know how hard it is for them to ask in that situation? Can you see how this disconnect can create strife in the workplace because different values are being applied to something as simple as a request for help? Now you can see the undertones of the earlier conversation about saying “no” to people that constantly ask for things.
How To Say Yes
How do we agree to things then? If we’re trying to get things accomplished we need to be able to ask for help or tell our coworkers we need them to do something. How do we say “yes” and make sure that everyone involved knows that we are doing what we can to make it happen? How do we avoid being overwhelmed?
First, don’t just agree to make people happy. This is the number one issue that needs to be resolved in the workplace. It’s one that starts early on in our careers. We need to put limits on what we’re going to agree to do in order to keep from not having any boundaries whatsoever. Imagine a junior admin or a new hire constantly agreeing to work on things or come in on the weekends to do cutovers and the like. Does that style of work appeal to you? Do you think it’s something that show initiative and desire? If you’ve been in your role for a while do you think it’s a good thing to come in on the weekends? Or does it sound more like this person needs to have a little more work life balance?
If you agree to do things because you’re trying to make your boss happy or show your value to the organization you’re setting yourself up for eventual failure. Good managers and leaders don’t want robots that have zero personal time. They want good employees that know when they’re reaching their limits and can respectfully and responsibly decline things that would push them over the edge. When you agree to do something outside the scope of your job or perform extra work, make sure that the person you’re talking to understands that it’s outside the norm for you. If you tell them that this isn’t normally part of your role but you’re doing it to learn or that you’re helping someone out that asked you to come in for a cutover you’re setting the expectation that there is a purpose behind what you’re doing and not just that you agree to anything you’re told.
Second, you need to help people understand what is going on with what you’re doing. If an overworked colleague comes to you to ask you for help with something and you’re overworked too you’re not going to be able to provide them with much help or support. For those out there that think an outright refusal is a bad thing, like me present you with the following statement to clarify what’s going on:
What I need to make my answer “yes” is…
In essence, you’re telling the person that you want to agree to do what they’re asking but you need them to understand what’s going on beyond just agreeing. You’re not putting conditions on your answer so much as you’re telling them what you’re involved with and what needs to change in order to help them out. You’re informing them of the roadblocks that are keeping you from helping. That’s responsible in my book. While I’m sure there are people that will say it feels selfish to phrase answers like that you also have to see that you’re not saying “no” without providing context. You’re telling them you do want to help but that you need these other things to go a certain way too.
Third, you need to make sure you keep track of what happens after you agree. Does the job need to be done frequently and you always get asked to do it? Is it a one-time thing never to be seen or heard from again? Are you recognized for your effort? Even if it’s just a simple “thank you”? It sounds silly to keep track of things like this but it’s important because it provides data for you about how often you’re being pulled away to do other things. If this is a recurring task that your manager is asking you to do then it needs to be included in your job role. If it’s something that gets asked of you all the time and no one ever knows what you’re doing then you need to find out why.
Documenting your extra tasks will help you understand who is always coming to you for help and let you do something to reduce that. Do they need additional training? Are they being tasked with something that someone else should be handling? Do they just have a habit of asking you to help them with things because they’re overwhelmed too? Or, in a more negative light, are they making you do the work so they can take the credit? These are all questions that can only be answered when you have data. If you just have it in your head that you’re always helping a particular coworker or it feels like you’re always getting a phone call to run a particular report for someone you need to keep track of it so you can speak with confidence when it comes up.
There’s a lot of effort that goes into agreeing to do something for someone outside of what you normally do at work. It is true that you can’t say “no” to every request. However, you can agree in such a way as to help people understand what you’re working on and under what conditions you will be able to help. Again, I’m pretty sure there are those in the community that will tell me that I’m being prickly when I say that you need to put conditions on your agreement but you also have to see that saying yes to everything without taking your own situation into account is just as bad as saying no to things. Either you’re going to be seen as the person with no boundaries that will just do anything or you’re going to get so overwhelmed with work that you don’t get anything done and you end up in the same mess you’d be if you’d said no.