The Evolution of No

Liz-Cain by

No is a powerful word. It can be a determiner, an adverb, an interjection, an exclamation and a noun. We learn to say “no” early (and often!).

So if we learn to say “no” at such a young age, why is it so hard to apply it, correctly, to our work lives? There is some great advice out there about learning to say no (I love the article Why saying no gets you ahead), but it’s geared toward the leadership level. The same advice does not apply to those earlier in their careers, who are just getting started and fighting for opportunities and exposure.

“No” is a word that should grow with you throughout your career. How you leverage it must change as you take on more responsibility, get years of experience under your belt and learn your own work capacity.

Early in your career you should banish the word “no” from your vocabulary.

I really mean this. If someone brings you an opportunity to get involved in a new project, ​offers you more responsibility, asks you to cover something for them…say YES. Some quick guidelines for you.

You should say YES if:

  1. You know how to do the task at hand OR have the time to figure it out
  2. You are confident you can successfully deliver
  3. You are providing value

(Let’s throw a disclaimer on here and assume for a second that you will continue to say no to things that are illegal, put you in danger, or are generally misguided, etc…)

Two reasons you should be saying “yes” more:

1. Build your reputation.

When your name comes up, what do people say? “She helped me out last week”, “she’s the first person I ask when…”, “She can figure it out”. The reality is that relationships drive your career. I’m not saying you can’t say no when someone asks for a favor, but there are trade offs and the currency is opportunity. A “yes” gives you a chance. Your ability to deliver after the “yes” begets another ask, more exposure and greater opportunity. If you build a reputation for being responsive and getting things done, doors will open.

2. Get exposure.

New opportunities mean learning and development for you. How do you figure out what you are interested in and what you are good at if you don’t explore? Especially early in your career, saying “yes” means pushing the limits of your current skill set. In my first job out of college I was working for a small start up. There were days where I did work that was WAY above my pay grade and, more often, stuff that no one else wanted to do. I ran to CVS when we ran out of plastic spoons, did expense reports for other people, did the dishes, looked at real estate, joined calls with APAC (because let’s be honest, no one wants to take a 9 PM call), got on a plane whenever anyone asked. But here’s what’s cool about that – I had the opportunity to learn so much. I worked with our customer user groups and partners, ran our annual user summit, led prospect calls I probably shouldn’t have even been invited to, helped design and build out 3 offices, opened up 5 international teams and ultimately learned that I was passionate about building repeatable, scalable processes and developing great people.

Learning to say “no”

Eventually you reach a tipping point in your career. Whether you are an individual contributor or lead a large team, when your responsibilities grow and you’ve found your niche, you earn the right to say “no”. As a leader you have also have a responsibility to your team to say “no”.

Learning when and how to say “no” is not as easy as it sounds, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.

First, you need to prioritize. “No” should never be the first word, but a matter of necessity. Your time is valuable. Once you understand your own velocity/capacity and where you can have the greatest impact, sometimes “no” is the right answer. Let me be clear – this is a skill, and skills can be learned. There is a difference between saying “no, i won’t help you” and setting clear expectations on where and how you can assist.

As a leader this becomes exponentially more difficult. Most people learn their own velocity over time, but struggle to understand and manage people that don’t work like them. Your job as a manager is to clear the noise and remove the barriers to success. Overcommitting your team and cluttering their days with extraneous work is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes this means being brave, sticking your neck out and protecting your people and sometimes it means saying “no” so they don’t have to.

The meaning of the word “no” doesn’t change as you gain experience, but in a world where perception is often reality, it’s impact can be huge.