When to Say No in Business

Do you feel guilty when you say no? Are you overcommitted and stressed out because you say yes far too often? From the authors of the new book Womenomics, here’s advice on when and how you should say no in business.

Once you’ve tamed your inner-guilt monster, you are ready to welcome that most wonderful of words into your vocabulary. We’re certain you barely use it. But it’s a potent combination of two letters that could routinely save our sanity. Go ahead. Say it. You know the word we mean.


Are we simply allergic to it, terrified of the consequences? What do we really think will happen if it becomes a regular part of our speech? Maybe the world would be rocked by an Armageddon of hurt feelings? Perhaps our pictures would be blasted through cyberspace as modern-day Leona Helmsleys? Or worst of all, people might be — disappointed?

Maybe. But here’s the fundamental problem. When we are so eager to please everyone and avoid people being cross with us, we end up saying yes to a lot of things we don’t really want. This of course means we end up spending more time working than we really want. And that’s why you are reading this book.

“In the past I tended to be a ‘yes’ person,” Stephanie Hampton, the Marriott spokesperson told us. “I’d say ‘yes’ to just about anything and everything, in the belief that I was building a reputation for myself as a can-do, go-to person. I looked around and noticed that a lot of successful people don’t say ‘yes’ to everything; they are more strategic. They say ‘yes’ for a variety of reasons. True, sometimes it’s based on who’s doing the asking. But most of the time successful people choose to say ‘yes’ to strategic or value-added work. So now I think about whether a project will put ‘heads on beds’ or otherwise enhance the brand reputation of Marriott. if the answer is no, it’s usually just busywork, and I try to find a way to say ‘no’ without saying ‘no.'”

Our New York lawyer, Linda Brooks, says she still backslides. “I think people don’t like to be told no, so I have to get a thicker skin and resist the urge to please everyone, because I sit there and think, ‘oh my God he hates me now,’ and ‘he’s never going to give me another deal’ and ‘I’m sure the partners are going to vote next week to kick me out of the partnership because I said “no” to that deal.’ My head goes there. So it does take a bit of thickening of the skin. But it does get easier.”

You may not believe it now, but tossing off no will become second nature. It’s a must-have tool for implementing Womenomics. You’ll see in the upcoming chapters how much use it gets. Once you’ve really set your goals, you will be much clearer about what you want to tackle and what you don’t want to take on. it gets refreshingly simple actually — that weekend assignment, no; those extra hours, no; that promotion with all the travel and increased responsibility, no. You will learn not just to say “no,” but also to think no, mean no, and act no.

And yes, employing it may mean you disappoint, anger, and annoy. But it will also mean you are happier, healthier, and more straightforward. It’s certainly a better situation for you and, also, therefore, for everyone in your life in the long run. Even the recipients of your nos!

Claire: I’ve always been an ardent people pleaser. For some reason, I grew up with the sense that saying yes as much as I can is more important than anything else. Disappointing people, letting them down — just the thought of that can send me into guilt spasms for days. I came to believe that being thought of as a “nice” person was the ultimate achievement. And I still believe that compassion and caring are at the top of my list. But I’ve also come to understand that my “yes” behavior could be intensely frustrating and stressful to me, my family and friends, and the people getting my “yesses.” I was constantly taking on more than I could handle — and then having to back out of projects or commitments — making the very people I was trying to help angrier than they would have been in the first place after just hearing a “no.” Once my son was born, I started to understand that I had to cut back on my people-pleasing, since I had someone who wanted and needed my attention so much, and he was clearly my priority. But I was still trying to do too much until one incident radically changed my outlook. I’d said yes to a trip out west for a story that I knew was not a top priority, but I didn’t want to “let down” the senior producer who’d asked me. I was juggling other projects, one of which then went on the air to tepid reviews. On top of that, my husband and I had barely seen each other, and my son was quite clingy. I came back from the trip with my typical chest cold, which my doctor finally told me she believed was stress-induced, since I managed to get it seven or eight times a year. I spent two days limping around the house, fighting with my husband instead of having a nice weekend with him as we’d planned, and I was too sick and tired to go to my son’s first swimming lesson. And I finally had to tell the senior producer I just could not finish her project, which made her livid, to say the least. It was an ugly period, for sure, but a critical awakening for me about the power, and the necessity, of no.

We’ll walk you through some very situation-specific ways to say “no” in chapters 5, 6, and 7. But first, you must have the psychological grounding, the mental readiness to deploy this powerful instrument without fretting about what people think of you when you use it. You really will come to believe that no is not negative. It’s as positive as it gets.


Recognizing a NO Moment

You probably already have a very good internal radar as to what constitutes a reasonable request and what does not; what is part of your job, and what is inappropriate. It’s funny how we all know immediately after we say yes that we made the wrong move. How many times have we said: “Why did I say yes to that?” We knew beforehand too. You just have to become a better sleuth.

Asking yourself these questions will help you make a rational evaluation of the consequences at work. They dig inside your emotions to get to your gut instinct — which is almost always right but just hard to uncover.

The best opening question to ask yourself is, very simply:

“Does this request help me in any way?”

If you realize that the request is completely unhelpful to you, then you’ve got a definite no moment on your hands. You might have to figure out how to say “no” (see the sections below) but the no should be said.

If the request actually does have value to you, and can be helpful to you, then there are a few follow-up questions to ask yourself. First, try to calibrate the importance of the request in terms of a bigger picture by asking:

“Will this make a big difference to my career?”

In many cases the answer will be that, no, it doesn’t. And here you also need to factor in smaller questions such as — do I actually have the time and the skills necessary to do it well? Otherwise, it could have a negative impact on your career! But you might also find that you believe that it is important to your career, and that you can pull it off. You’ve no doubt learned by now that if something is going to affect your career, then it’s bound to affect other things in your life. And, thus, the next question:

“How will this affect my balance at home?”

Be honest here. You may know you have a tendency to fear the worst, and assume every change in your schedule will be a personal tsunami, leaving your children whiplashed and virtually orphaned. Or you may typically assume you can handle everything, only to see it all come crashing together in an ugly way later. Know yourself, know your tendencies, and think through what you really think will happen.

Lauren Tyler fairly pulsates with a welcoming, magnetic energy. Her nature is one of the things that make her so successful, but at the same time it’s something she’s come to understand can leave her overburdened and a target of unnecessary requests. She’s spent twenty years honing her process of reaching no, and keeps it simple with a variation on the above three questions. “At this point I always ask, ‘Does it help me do my job? Or does it help my kids?’ If the answer is no, I don’t take it on.”

Robin Ehlers of General Mills easily weeds out the obvious nos with the above questions, but she has also learned to recognize that there are things she’s inclined to turn down because they seem daunting, but which she actually enjoys, professional and personal. “Even if it seems hard and it might be disruptive, is it something that I’ll actually enjoy doing in the end? That’s what I try to figure out,” she says. “Like Monday night I had thirty people over for this charity dinner, and I was like, ‘I can’t believe I did this.’ But I actually enjoyed it, and I’ve also learned not to worry about the house looking perfect or the food being great.”

That moves us toward asking the more personal questions. They deal with your instinct, your gut feeling, your intuition, your sixth sense. Think of them as an emotional litmus test.

“Do I have a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think about saying yes?”

If there is that unpleasantly nervous feeling — something more than just “butterflies” — then you need to stop and figure out what’s going on, since this is an emotional red flag. The fact that you can physically feel the pit lingering there is an indication of how strong your doubt is.

“Will I be mad at myself for saying yes instead of no?”

If you have an inkling that you’ll be angry or feel some kind of resentment toward yourself, then you should seriously consider saying “no,” since any self-directed anger indicates a feeling of self-betrayal.

Lastly, make sure that you actually feel positive about the request:

“Am I eager to do this at all? Does any of it appeal to me?”

Here’s where looking back to the past for clues, which is what Robin does, can be helpful. Are there other situations where you’ve thought something might be hard, or unwise, and then in the end you actually were happy you said yes? Part of this, again, is knowing yourself well and recognizing when your reaction is simply a fairly meaningless habit, or actually constitutes real warning bells.

The above is an excerpt from the book Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success by Claire Shipman & Katty Kay. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Claire Shipman & Katty Kay, authors of Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success

Author Bios
Claire Shipman & Katty Kay are co-authors of Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success

Claire Shipman is the senior national correspondent for ABC News’ Good Morning America and a regular on This Week with George Stephanopoulos. Previously, Shipman was the White House correspondent for NBC news and a reporter for CNN in Moscow, where she earned multiple awards for her coverage of the demise of the Soviet Union. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.

Katty Kay is the Washington correspondent and anchor for BBC World News America. She is also a contributor on Meet the Press, The Charlie Rose Show, and The Chris Matthews Show, as well as a regular guest host for Diane Rehm on NPR. Kay grew up in the middle East and now lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and four children.

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