It’s so hard to say no, especially when you care deeply about something. Ironically, that’s exactly when practicing saying no is crucial to your professional and mental well-being.
We’ve all been here. As employees of mission-driven organisation and companies, our worth and professionalism has often, if not always, been equated to how much we are willing to take on. Wearing multiple hats is not uncommon in this line of work, whether it’s in grassroots initiatives or in large company. If you care, you’re going take on the extra work.
In self-proclaimed innovative organisations and sectors, where we constantly hear buzz words like transformative leadership, creative learning and capacity-informed structures, we still find employees who have a hard time saying no, by fear of not being team-players. Why would staff members (especially marginalised, new, and young) still be unable to say no, or even ask when they can refuse to take on a task that was never really described to be theirs in the first place? The inability to take the time to identify their needs, to prioritise their work correctly, and set healthy professional boundaries is what drives employees in mission-driven initiatives across the country into burnouts, disenfranchisement and ultimately apathy towards the work they once were passionate about.
If we are working in a environment of trust, partnership, teamwork and support, the burden of showing up wouldn’t solely have to rest on the employee. In fact, a large aspect of leadership is being able to identify and validate an employee’s concerns when they say no, and work to resolve the issue by either re-prioritising, re-delegating, or rescheduling. The mark of a strong leader is not to get the employees to cave and do the work needed anyway, it’s to find a way that makes the employee feel seen, valued and cared for in a situation they don’t see themselves succeeding or delivering. The opposite of this approach results in the employee getting bulldozed, gaslit and left to feel unsatisfied, mocked and unvalued. I have been on the receiving end of this and trust me, it’s a horrible feeling, and it somewhat robs you of your initial glee to belong to an organisation.
A big part of my mentoring work is to help employees and leaders build tools to map their boundaries and capacity in their roles and equip them with practices that empower them to say no when their cup runneth over. Here is one of the practices I recommend often:
1. Your employer asks you to take on a task that busts your capacity that week.
Ex. “Sorry, I can’t do that this week.” / “Sorry, I can’t take this on right now.”
2. They insist it’s important and a good learning opportunity.
Say No + Name a Reason
Ex. “Unfortunately I have a few tasks that have piled up because of the high volume of meetings this week and I am at capacity, I can’t take this on right now.”
3. They try to convince you that you can fit this into your schedule.
Say No + Reiterate your Reason + Offer an Alternative + State a Need
Ex. “I understand that you need this, and I am really sorry I can’t commit to this at this moment. Like I mentioned, I also am behind on some work priorities because of meetings that were scheduled last minute or went over the allotted time. Please ask me again in the future, I do think it’s interesting and I would love to be more prepared and feel like I will be valuable contributor to the <event/project, etc.> with some notice and prep time.”
Being new and saying no is so scary, but being a people-pleaser and never evaluating your capacity sets a precedent and increasingly unhealthy expectations from your boss and coworkers. I found that reiterating my reasons and needs often helps a lot because it shows that you’re not just refusing for the heck of it, you’re trying to ensure that when you show up, you’re able to give your 100% and are able to receive 100% of the information you need to learn and grow. Ultimately, you’re saying no for your AND for your organisation’s wellbeing.
Check out the reads below to know how to set your work boundaries and stick to them: