Picture this: it’s a busy day at the office and you’re slammed with work. Your boss comes around the corner, barking orders. You feel like you have no choice but to take on her added to-dos, turning an already busy day into a paperwork Armageddon.
But guess what? You have alternatives. You don’t have to say yes to every request that comes your way. In fact, the strongest leaders in every office know where to draw the line and just say no.
It’s a myth that you have to be a yes-person to be successful. But even then, we have an instinctive desire to be seen as a helpful team player. Most workers say “yes” before they can even think about it. There are obviously times when you should certainly say yes—taking on extra tasks can put you in the running for promotions, expand your skillset, and deepen relationships—but “yes” can be the most dangerous word in the world, especially if you’re using it on the wrong things and at the wrong time.
Paul Sanders, the Founder, Chairman, and CEO of James River Capital, knows that saying “no” is a skill, and he shares how learning to use it at work—the right way—can help propel your career even further.
About James River Capital & Paul Sanders
Paul Sanders and his business partner acquired the business that would become James River Capital in 1995. In the 25 years since, Saunders has served as the James River Capital CEO and Chairman. He puts his 30+ years of experience in finance to work, helping investors find ways to balance their portfolio.
James River Capital specializes in alternative investment strategies. The company operates out of Richmond, Virginia, and believes that investment risk is best managed using a diverse portfolio.
Saunders has been in the C-suite for decades and he credits his success in part to saying no at work. See how Saunders draws the line between saying yes and no, and how you can say no without alienating your coworkers.
When saying “yes” can hurt you
Why do we still say yes to things when we’re swimming in work? It comes down to the science of the human brain.
Remember, humans are still animals and as animals, we’re hard-wired to crave connection with our fellow humans. We instinctively want to keep the peace and that often takes the form of people-pleasing. The words, “Sure, no problem!” escape your lips before you even think about it.
The biggest danger of saying yes too much is that, when you say yes to so many random to-dos, you’re saying no to the things you should be doing. You’re only human and you have a limited amount of time at work, but instead of focusing on the tasks you really need to focus on, your attention is divided too much because you’re giving out a “yes” to everyone you see.
You risk three things when you say yes too much at work.
When you say yes to planning all of your boss’s travel for 2020, you might begin to resent him. The more time you spend on this task, the less you’re able to focus on the work you need (or want) to be doing.
The result? You might start to feel personally slighted at work. This is a recipe for disliking your coworkers, dreading conversations with your boss, and a general distaste for your company.
By saying yes too much, you’re doing the opposite of connecting with people; you lay the groundwork to start pushing them away in your mind.
Your time at the office is precious, but with so many things competing for your attention, you’re going to drop the ball. Even if you manage to meet your boss’s insane deadlines, the work quality isn’t going to be great. And because your work quality suffers, your general performance at work suffers, too.
If you want to boost the quality of your work, stop saying yes to everything. Give yourself the time and latitude to focus your time on the projects that matter.
Feeling sluggish? You’re not alone as 74% of Americans are tired at work. But if you’re tired from stress and a high workload, you can combat that by not saying yes to every request that graces your desk.
You aren’t a slacker for doing less work. If anything, you’ll produce better work and have more energy, which smart companies want for their employees. When you focus on fewer tasks, you feel energized and motivated by your work instead of stressed and anxious.
How to say “no” the right way
In his time at James River Capital, Saunders has learned how to say no. Follow these three tips to say no at work to save time, improve your work quality, and find happiness at your job.
Know when it’s appropriate to say no
You can’t say no to everything, of course. Sometimes you’ll need to say yes when you don’t want to, and that’s just business. But if a request falls into one of these three buckets, you’re more than justified to turn it down.
It’s irrelevant or unreasonable
Does your coworker want you to run a report that normally takes 12 hours in 2 hours? Or does your boss want you to pick up her dry cleaning when you work in IT?
If an ask is unreasonable or totally irrelevant to your duties, you have room to push back. This is really hard, especially when your boss or client is asking you for these things.
You have to get over the fear of saying no to these requests. It’s critical because when it comes to irrelevant or unreasonable requests, you can’t win. You have to operate within the realm of sanity, and if a request isn’t sane, it’s only going to make you look bad. You need to say no to maintain your professional reputation, even if it comes at the expense of upsetting or upsetting a coworker, boss, or client.
It’s distracting you from your duties
If an ask hinders you from doing your actual job, you can push back. For example, if you’re in marketing and your boss asks you to fix a bug in the website, that’s distracting you from your duties. You might not even know how to fix the issue, which can lead to work-related panic, which stops you from being able to do your actual job, and so the loop continues.
It’s morally wrong
This goes without saying, but sometimes employees feel pressured by their boss to do the wrong thing. You’re in the right to say no for moral reasons if an ask doesn’t align with your values, even more so if it creates a toxic environment.
- Offer an alternative
Once you’ve decided to say no to a request, you have to choose your words carefully. After all, you don’t want to reply to your boss’s request with, “No. I will not do that.” It’s going to come off cold and disrespectful.
For example, say your boss invites you to a 6 am meeting. You know you don’t really need to be in this meeting, but you feel bad telling your boss no. When she sends you the meeting invite, reply and ask if you can send feedback on the project ahead of time because you can’t join at 6 am.
Or, if your coworker says, “I need this article written in one hour,” you can push back by saying, “I can’t have it done in one hour, but I can get it to you by the end of the day. Does that work?”
By offering an alternative, you reinforce what’s reasonable and within the realm of possibility for you while meeting the other person halfway. This is the key to preserving your reputation and relationships with your coworkers while protecting your time and your work at the office.
- Don’t make it sound negotiable
According to Saunders, confidence is the key to effectively saying no. If you push back with wishy-washy language like “maybe” and “I don’t know,” it gives off the impression that your “no” isn’t a no at all.
Avoid this at all costs. Be firm and assertive, but friendly and respectful, when you say no. If you make the pushback sound negotiable, you’re giving the other person the power to override you. You’ll still end up doing the task you don’t want to do, plus you’ll lose your ability to say no in the future, which can be taken advantage of.
The Bottom Line
In his years at James River Capital, Saunders has learned a very important lesson: we have a limited amount of time at work. If you say yes to everything, your time will diminish, and you won’t be able to get your work done. Instead, you’ll be doing others’ work for them.
Being a professional means that you have to say no in a polite, firm way that protects your reputation, relationships, and can boost your career for the long haul.