You are in a job and you are very busy. You are having another 60-hour workweek, hiding behind that pile of reports on your desk. And you really cannot take on more. Yet, you are still given work that you don’t really have time for. Many employees have a hard time saying no. Time and again they are tempted to do things that they really don’t have time for or that have nothing to do with their job. The reason: they want to be appreciated and liked. It is also often the boss who asks and if you say no, you might be out on the street.
Time to say no to your boss and to learn how to decline additional work politely. Or, you are fed up with your manager and thinking about leaving, in which case you might want to check out my last paragraph of the ideal escape route.
An executive who exploits these kinds of fears is nothing new under the sun. An extreme example: The Devil Wears Prada (based on a true story) in which the feared boss of a New York fashion magazine gives her personal assistant absurd assignments. It also shows how ‘Andy’ could overcome these obstacles by persevering and learning. She probably could endure more as she was just graduated from school.
Make an overview of your tasks
It is not for nothing that ‘no’ is central to all kinds of assertiveness training: stand up for yourself and show what you stand for. Just say it: “no, you can’t!” But that doesn’t always work out well, as not every situation is the same. I once spoke to an angry employer who had sent one of his employees on an assertiveness course. ‘He then said no to absolutely everything, which was not the objective of the course.’
You can also teach people to say no by saying yes. But under the right conditions: ‘Yes, I can do that for you, but in a week from now. People often find that approach much less scary than saying ‘no’ bluntly. And the boss can handle it better too. For something like this to come out smoothly, you first have to figure out exactly how much work you have lying around, make an overview every morning of what you have to do that day. Divide it into tasks that are urgent and those that can wait. This way you know whether you can have extra work.
Don’t take it personally
If someone walks in with a pile of work now, you can say without stuttering: fine, just put it on my desk, but I still have to finish this first, so it will be tomorrow.’ And if the other person continues to whine? Then you put on the repetitive gramophone record: ‘I understand it’s annoying for you, but I can’t help you now. It will be tomorrow.’ If your colleague then comes off visibly disappointed, remember that it is the official you said no to, not the person.
Nevertheless, a ‘yes’ without the right conditions quickly disappears. The first move when making a request is, therefore: buy time!’ People always think they have to come up with an answer right away. If you don’t know for a moment, come back to it: ‘I want to think about whether I can take this project on board. Is it okay if I let you know tomorrow?’
One thing is certain: anything is better than saying yes and doing no. Then you are unreliable, people get angry and you have a lot to make up for. And that when you meant it so well. That takes a lot of time and energy.
Here are some other dos and don’ts.
Start your sentence with ‘I’ and be clear and concise. For example, if your colleague is ill and your manager simply assumes that you are also doing her work, you can say: I don’t like it when you assume that I’m going to do all her work on the side.’
Show understanding for the other person and think about alternative solutions. “I’m happy to look for a feasible solution together with you.”
Avoid words like never and always: “You always throw work on my desk.” It is better to react immediately the moment it happens. “I see you’re throwing extra work on my desk. I’d rather you check with me first to see if I have time for this.”
Watch your body language: stand or sit up straight, speak clearly and with conviction. Someone who looks you straight in the eye and lowers their voice automatically takes you more seriously than someone who wriggles their hands and looks away.
Be alert and register your primary feeling. If something doesn’t feel right, take that feeling seriously. When someone tries to give you a job because “you always do it so well”, you feel like you’re being manipulated.
If a request is not clear, keep asking. For example, when someone asks you to work out a plan, ask how extensive the plan should be and when it should be delivered. After this information, you can make a better estimate of what to say ‘yes’ or what to say ‘no’ to.
Making excuses so as not to have to face a confrontation. “Hmm, my boyfriend doesn’t like it when I work overtime” instead of “No, I don’t work overtime on the weekend.”
Thinking that’s just how you are and that you’re never going to be able to set boundaries.
Confusing a big mouth with assertive behavior. So not like, “Look at it, you don’t think I’m going to do that for you!”, but instead saying “No, I can’t help you now, maybe another time.”
Say yes when you mean no. Stop being friends with everyone, because eventually, you will always have to disappoint someone and run the risk of getting overworked. So stop pleasing! An overstrained employee is of no use to anyone.
Fighting a losing battle
Julie (29) couldn’t say no either. The result: burnout. ‘I was a group leader in child and adolescent psychiatry and experienced quite serious incidents on a daily basis. For example, children who harmed themselves or were aggressive towards the practitioners. But there was hardly any aftercare for the staff. And so the management made even more mistakes.
The team started to function worse and worse. And I took on more and more work, just to make up for what other people left behind. Tasks that were not really part of my job at all. And then suddenly I was sitting on the couch in the dark. Burnt-out. I’ve been at home for three months.’
In retrospect, there were enough signals. She was always tired and she needed the whole weekend to refuel. Do you know that feeling after a day of moving? Well, I had that after work, day in and day out. She only talked about her job. ‘I was constantly on the phone with my colleagues. Also in the evenings and at the weekend.’ Her surroundings also saw her slide further and further. ‘My friends told me I was no longer myself, superficial, emotionless. Nothing made me feel hot or cold anymore, but I always dismissed it with: I’m just busy for a while, that will pass.
Her tips for learning to say no
‘Find out what influences the people in your circle. To what extent can you actually change things at work and what falls outside that circle? Let go of things and tasks that are beyond your control. That fighting a losing battle makes you dead tired and it is of no use to anyone. Turn off the light and go home.’
‘Find out your exact job description. Sometimes you can really go the extra mile to keep your work challenging, but set limits. I never work overtime like this again and I have never heard anyone complain about it. You create expectations if you always say yes.’
It should never have come this far with Julie and with the aid of the above advice, you will be able to prevent the worst or at least see it coming.
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