The life changing power of saying no in your career

This week, Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time, said no. She said no to continuing to compete to prioritise her mental health and protect herself.

And, once in a while, we should all be taking a leaf out of her book. 

‘No’ is one of the most powerful words in the English language and one we should start to use in our career as soon as it gets off the ground. 

But most of us struggle with it. 

It doesn’t come naturally and doesn’t fit with our ideal of who we want to be. Why?

1. It goes against what we’ve been taught. 

I vividly remember my secondary school headmistress using the phrase Seize the Day at every opportunity under the sun to describe how we 15-year-old girls were meant to go out and face the world. She brought it up at every assembly and it was drilled into us from the get-go. 

We’ve been brought into a world taught that we should be living life to the full. And at the same time, social media has led most of us to FOMO - the fear of missing out. What if we don’t take up that opportunity? What if we don’t say yes to taking on a new project? 

It might just offer all that we’ve been wanting from our next career move, and we can’t deny ourselves that!

2. It might lead to unfavourable consequences. 

You’re swamped at work, overwhelmed and have no idea when you’re going to complete your most pressing project, but you still say yes.

Saying no might mean a missed opportunity to show your line manager how competent you are and, in turn, promotion or putting you in good stead in the eyes of the company. 

Saying no might even lead to the loss of a job. 

So why would we put ourselves in that compromising position? 

3. You don’t want to disappoint or offend.

By saying no you are changing the nature of the relationship with that person in negative ways. 

The fear of offending or disappointing someone whose opinion you value can make saying no quite uncomfortable.

4. It might be seen as a sign of weakness.

For some, saying no feels like admitting failure. Being asked to do something, however mundane and laborious, can make us feel wanted, competent and likeable. And we want to continue being seen in this way.

Furthermore, Western society is obsessed with being busy, and for many of us busy equals important. And why not? Everyone wants to be valued for their expertise and ability to perform a task well. 

However, saying yes to every job under the sun can quickly lead to burnout and a focus away from what YOU want to achieve in your career, which can be detrimental in the long run. 

And saying no can be an incredibly powerful thing to help us in our quest.

Psychology Today calls saying no a ‘hidden power’ as it’s a moment where you are actively making a choice. It announces, however indirectly, that you have personal responsibility for your actions and are not going to be influenced by your relationships. 

It shows that you have limits, you understand what your boundaries are, and Psychology Today suggests that in having these boundaries we are stronger. 

The power of saying no is in the payoff - the ability to be more productive and reach your own goals for what YOU'D like to achieve in your career and life. 

So here’s how to reframe saying no into something positive, and help you protect your future self in the same way as Biles did:

1. Saying no gives me time to focus on my own goals and values.

By saying no to some projects, you can focus on those that move you forward in your career and help you achieve what you set out to achieve, rather than filling your day with things that won't accomplish anything in the long run. 

2. Say no gives me time with others and to do things I enjoy.

Saying yes to everything means being swamped in the workplace, and being swamped often means that relationships, hobbies and friendships take a back seat. BUT THEY SHOULDN’T. Next time you are asked to work on an urgent assignment, remember that if you already have plans, then YOU’RE BUSY and can't offer your time on the work. 

3. Saying no prevents me from burning out.

You only have so much time and energy, and having a to-do list longer than your arm will make you feel overwhelmed and overworked. In the short term, this will lead to you being underproductive and unmotivated, and unable to complete your tasks to the best of your abilities, whilst in the long run it may even lead to burnout and having to take time off work.

4. Saying no makes my time more valuable.

Saying no allows you to show others that you respect the time you have and it’s not to be wasted. Over time, others will respect it too, and instead of being seen as a pushover, you’ll be asked to work on projects only when they fall under your remit and are also in line with your career goals, which will be a win-win situation for you. You’ll also have more time to do your job better, and this may, in turn, lead to you being looked at more favourably within the company. 

So how do you say no? 

There’s a time and a place for no, so when is that time?

Before you say no to everything under the sun, get a clear vision of what you want from your career over the next two to five years. This means that you can have set boundaries and know when tasks fall under your remit. Whenever you get asked to work on a project, as yourself: What do I want? And: Will saying yes to it help me achieve that or prevent my progress?

In this way, it will be easier to say no, and you’ll be all the happier for it.