Saying No, Without Saying No.
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
We’ve all been there. You’ve got loads on and something else hits your inbox or gets passed to you by your manager that needs urgent attention. Or someone drops by your desk while you’re trying to finish all the user stories for the next sprint and they need your help to resolve an issue.
Deep down, you want to say no. You’re already past full capacity and you don’t have the time or mental space for another task or issue to resolve. Rather than saying no, you do the opposite. You agree to take on the work required or entertain your new visitor’s issues.
Why do we do this?
We are hardwired to yes. We want to help our peers and please our superiors. We want to be seen as someone who is approachable and the go to person to get things done and build our profiles within the organisation we operate. We feel that is the best way to advance in the company. Saying no to a peer and particularly a superior feels uncomfortable and would be detrimental to our careers.
The ironic thing is, by saying yes when you're already overloaded, you are setting ourselves up for failure. Having too much on means something will slip. A deadline will be missed, a mistake will be made and ultimately someone’s expectations are not going to be met. The result? The exact opposite of what you hoped to achieve by saying yes. People now think you don’t meet expectations or you can’t meet deadlines.
A good manager would recognise that you’re already at full capacity, or they’d at least ask you if you had capacity to take on a task before they gave it to you. Unfortunately that’s not the case with all managers, and even less so with peers who have less insight into your current workloads.
So what’s the answer? Can you say no, without actually saying no?
Of course you can.
Next time you're in the situation where you want to say no, but the word yes starts to slip out, try saying this instead.
“I'd like to help. At the moment I am at full capacity so if you can wait for it to be done then I can pick it up when I've finished my current task. If not, and you want me to pick this up now, then I'm going to have to stop something else. Can you help me agree a way forward please?”
“I've got a few things on at the moment so could you help me understand where this sits in terms of priorities because I want to make sure I'm working on the most important things.”
Both of these approaches puts the ball back in the other person's court and makes it clear you're at full capacity therefore something has to give. It’s a much more constructive way that saying 'Sorry I can't do that, I don't have the time.’
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