There is a crucial, mid-career shift all hardworking professionals must make to get ahead. It’s not taught in school, it’s not taught in university, and it’s usually not taught in our families.
The shift is this: saying NO.
What Got You Here…
The problem is that it’s not an intuitive shift to make because it’s the opposite of how you get ahead in your early career. One of the ways you prove value early is by being the person who takes care of stuff. You get s*** done and you take on whatever comes your way. In other words you say yes.
You’re a jack of all trades, you figure it out when no one knows what to do, and you just find a way to get the job done.
Then at some point your position will expand internally or you’ll start a new job with a bigger scope. And if you continue to say yes, your career (not to mention your personal life) will suffer.
Employers will take advantage of you. Even employers with the best intentions will push you to keep taking care of all the things. They’ll give you more work, stupid work (like office housework) that doesn’t help you grow. And if you got to where you are by being the person who says yes, you’ll feel stuck. You’ve achieved this much by taking care of stuff, so… shouldn’t you keep it up?
Because if you do, what happened to me could happen to you:
“Is that the Best Use of my Time?”
When I worked for the New Zealand government, I was in charge of a portfolio of New Zealand companies that wanted to grow in the US market. I was responsible for building out the Prime Minister’s business agenda and arranging his meetings with executives like Sheryl Sandberg. It was exciting! And a ton of work, because I said yes all the time.
Until one horrible night when I finally said NO.
I was in DC, and it was 11:30 pm. I called my boss in LA to talk through what still had to be done, explaining that I planned to work until 3 am, and to wake up at 5 am to start again.
My boss hears this and goes, “so it’s not that big of a deal, but we also need someone to pull the bios for everyone in North America.”
It actually was a big deal, and the task should have been done a month ago. But the person charged with doing it, didn’t get it done. Meanwhile everyone else on our team is at home while I’m getting two hours of sleep, and my boss doesn’t get it.
The problem is, I was always saying yes. I was the solution person and I always fixed it. My boss wasn’t a jerk. In fact, he’s one of the best bosses and mentors I’ve ever had. But he was just trying to find a solution. I’d made myself his go-to solution by always saying yes.
Back to the 11:30 pm phone call. I’m silent. And my boss goes, “is pulling the bios a problem?”
<radio silence, as I’m pondering how to fit it all in>
“I’m just wondering if that’s the best use of my time,” I said. The truth was, I had no time left.
“It shouldn’t take that long,” he said.
“Then someone else can do it,” I said.
I walked him through my all-nighter again. “What do you want me to give up so I can pull those bios?” I asked.
Finally he got it, and tasked someone else on our team with pulling the bios.
By asking “is that the best use of my time?” I said NO. This story is an extreme example — it should never have gotten to this point — and it’s an all too common occurrence for hard working professionals if they don’t learn how to say NO.
NO Is Not a Four Letter Word
Time is your most limited resource, and if you’re always cleaning up after the meeting or doing a task someone else should do, it’s going to limit your growth and cause frustration, resentment, and burnout. After the early years of your career, saying yes to this kind of work doesn’t increase your value.
I’m not saying you should never ever help out the team. What I AM saying is that it’s ok for you to ONLY take on your fair share.
But you can’t say “UM, NO” with the full power of your disgust. A lot of professionals don’t know how to say no diplomatically, so they end up taking on work they don’t enjoy, work that doesn’t help them grow, and work that’s way outside what they see for their future. The end result? You feel used or resentful. This chips away at you and the value of your time, expertise, and contribution.
The key is to help your boss and the people on your team see the value of your time by reasonably saying NO to work that doesn’t align with where you want to take your career.
Below is a list to get you started. I recommend you make your own list and be ready to use it. Practice with your partner or friends! Pop it into the back of your notebook or on a post-it under your laptop so it’s at the ready when you need it. The more routine it feels, the easier it will be to say NO.
5 Professional Ways to say NO to Mundane/Low Level Work that isn’t for You
- “I’m wondering if that’s the best use of my time?”
- “I’m wondering if Brandon can contribute there.”
- “Happy to take my turn. Let’s put John or Amir on deck for next time.”
- “This is what I’m working on. What would you like me to let go so I can make room for this project?”
- “Can I think about that and circle back with you tomorrow? I want to make sure I’m prioritizing my time well.”
When you say “sure, it’s no big deal” to your boss or your colleagues, they will think it’s no big deal, and that’s a straight shot to ensuring that people don’t appreciate the work you do.
But if you say NO respectfully and confidently, your team will quickly learn the value of your time and contributions, and you’ll quickly find yourself doing higher level work and taking on bigger impact projects. The thing to remember is that it starts with YOU.
YOU must value your time before expecting your boss or team to change their ways. And now that YOU understand that saying no is what will advance your career… watch out, world.
So…What Can You Do if Saying No is Constantly Met with More Work and NO Understanding?
Frankly, sometimes the easiest way to say NO is to start fresh. Are you stuck in a rut with a boss who views you as the solution? Have you been on office housework duty since time immemorial? It might be time to make a change.
Download my How to Get What You Want at Work tool for talented professionals to assess if you can make the right change at your current job, or if you’d be better served by finding a new one.
This guide focuses on the 3 Keys for Exceptional Career Growth that you need for your career to flourish, no matter what you do or where. When bosses or managers or jobs aren’t letting you say NO, a new environment might be your best option.
Click the below for instant access to How to Get What You Want at Work, and take the first step closer to your dream career.
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