The Power of Saying NO – Part 1

“What you don’t do determines what you can do.”

—Timothy Ferriss

Never underestimate the power of saying no!

At this point in your career, you’re probably heard a lot of advice about how to succeed in the business world.

“Set goals!”

“Be a team player!”

“Challenge yourself!”

These messages are driven home in team meetings, business-school courses, annual reviews, lectures and presentations, books, and blogs posts. (I’ve covered some of that territory in my own blog a few times!)

That’s all great advice, but it’s often delivered as is, without commentary about the need for balance. We aren’t automatons. We’re human beings—and that means we have limits. There’s only so much we can do. As much as we might want to do it all, sometimes we have to say no.

Don’t take just my word for it! The author of The 4-Four Workweek, Timothy Ferriss, has built a career around teaching people how to achieve success by prioritizing tasks in both work and life and knowing when to say no.[1] Because saying yes to something often means saying no to something else, it’s important to learn how to determine what’s most important—and then stick to your guns once you make a decision. In The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, William Ury (a distinguished senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project) writes, “Only by saying No to competing demands for your time and energy can you create space for the Yeses in your life.”[2] In short, saying no can be the first step toward getting what you really want.

power of saying no
Someday, I want this to be my response when saying NO!!!

As Ury points out, though, “No may be the most important word in in our vocabulary, but it is the most difficult to say well.” In my own experience, I’ve identified a number of reasons why people shy away from saying no at work:

  • We want to please our managers and colleagues. Who doesn’t want to be liked, right? One way to build goodwill with coworkers is to help them (directly or indirectly) succeed at their own tasks. And one way to curry favor (and positive reviews) with management is to be the person who always says yes when they need something done.
  • We want to avoid conflict. With such a strong emphasis placed on teamwork in many workplaces today, no one wants to be known as a naysayer or get a reputation for being obstructionist.
  • We feel guilty. Face it—we’re all busy people. (No one ever says, “I wish I were even busier at work!”) Sometimes we feel bad about turning down something that we know will end up on someone else’s plate.
  • We don’t want to miss any great opportunities. FOMO (“fear of missing out”) isn’t limited to the social sphere but affects our work lives, too. For example, saying no to X might mean not getting a chance at Y or Z.

We’ve all faced one (or more) of these in our professional lives. I’d go so far as to say that these reasons are universal: you’ll find examples of them in workplaces everywhere. But that doesn’t mean they have to be accepted at face value! Let’s address them one by one.

We want to please our managers and colleagues.

Leadership expert Marcel Schwantes points out, “Successful people don’t neglect their deepest wishes and desires to accommodate and yield to others’ wishes and desires.” This doesn’t mean you should turn into the office jerk—of course you want to develop healthy, positive relationships with your coworkers. At the same time, though, don’t let those relationships adversely affect your ability to get your own work done (and done well). (Keep in mind, too, that saying yes too often can have a negative impact by giving you a reputation as a pushover!)

We want to avoid conflict.

power of saying noIf your no is rooted in professionalism (for example, you’re saying no because a yes would interfere with your own work or be catastrophic to your work–life balance), another professional should recognize that. Under those circumstances, there should be no conflict. Unfortunately, you can’t control someone else’s reaction, so if a conflict arises under those circumstances, it’s on the other party—not on you.

We feel guilty.

Don’t. You can be a compassionate and considerate colleague without taking on more than your fair share. Sure, help out when you can. But when a yes gets in the way of your own responsibilities, say no instead.

We don’t want to miss any great opportunities.

If a truly once-in-a-lifetime chance comes your way, and accepting it means getting in a little temporarily our head, that’s one thing. (If your boss asks you to give a presentation to Sheryl Sandberg or Warren Buffett, for example, that’s something you don’t pass up—even if you have a million other deadlines staring you in the face and you have to forego sleep for a couple of days to get everything done!) But when you do your job well, fulfill all of the yeses you already have, and pay attention to what’s going on around you, you will have plenty of opportunities to make your mark.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure you’ve wrestled with one (or more) of those rationalizations in your own thinking. But now that you see why you don’t have to let them dictate your behavior, though, I hope you’re ready to take the next step: actually saying no effectively. Check back here next month to find out how!


[1] Timothy Ferriss. 2009. The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich. Crown: New York, NY.

[2] William Ury. 2007. The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes. Bantam: New York, NY.

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