Let's face it, telling someone no in a work setting isn't easy. Although this little word has the power to instantly make a situation uncomfortable, learning how to use it correctly can prove to be one of the most powerful skills in your workplace toolkit.
Friedrich Nietzsche once pointed out, "One who cannot control himself shall be controlled by others. That is the nature of all living things."
Self-regulation isn't just handy in the workplace; it's essential. And the truth is, knowing when to say no doesn't just help you stay in control, it's also invaluable for protecting your team from unnecessary missteps in the future.
While working on this article, I visited a couple of friends to hear their worst experiences that resulted from not knowing when to say no. Of all the stories I heard, this one took the cake.
One afternoon, a bartender had his boss ask if he could take on an extra night shift—by which he said, "yes." Moments later, his boss from a second job called to ask if he could take the morning shift. After the bartender agreed, the second boss also requested he cover the night shift as well. Too embarrassed to say no, the bartender agreed, yet again — resulting in a grueling 34 hours of work.
When a colleague or superior comes to you for a favor “just this once” (and it works for them the first time), they are sure to come back time and time again. For many people, they find themselves unable to just tell their coworkers "no." As a result, what was once a simple favor becomes part of their daily duties.
Why is it hard to say no? Like it or not, we're social animals who crave acceptance. Thousands of years ago, people lived in nature, hunting dangerous animals and foraging the land. Being rejected from the group in those times meant more than locking yourself in the house and watching bad movies; it meant dying alone in the wilderness. Although times have clearly changed, we are all still hardwired to be a part of the pack in the workplace.
Saying "no" is hard. A fact which marketers, traders, and conmen are especially aware of. An important message I recall from Robert Cialdini's, Psychology of Persuasion, is that manipulation often starts with the inability to say "no" to someone who's doing you a favor. As a result, we find it difficult to decline doing them a much bigger favor in return.
Another form of manipulation is known as framing (a term that comes from behavioral economics). People react differently when a task is defined positively or negatively. In Iceland, for example, organ donation is implemented in this way (everyone is automatically an organ donor). If someone wants to be removed from the organ donor database, they have to file a specific request to say "no." This strategy, as you may imagine, is incredibly useful.
Again, understanding when and how to say no is critical for the modern workplace. One must learn to get over the uncomfortable feeling of saying no by repeating it regularly. However, bear in mind that your boss and colleagues are only human. Although they may not be intentionally trying to take advantage of you, it's important that you be clear with them where you stand on the issue. Remember, if their request seems unreasonable or unfair, you're well within your right to simply tell them, "no."