JUST SAY NO: Learning to say no is one of the most valuable workplace skills

Thankless, invisible work that eats into time and career priorities is overwhelmingly done by women

Saying no to people is one of the most important skills you can develop.  You can only achieve great things if you know how to say no.  People pleasing is driven by fear, not virtue.

All this advice comes from three of the many books on how to say no that have gushed forth from a publishing industry apparently incapable of saying anything but yes to this idea for decades.

Don’t When You Want to Say No came out in 1975. In the past 15 months alone it has been joined by The Saying No, to Say No, of Saying No, Say No, and Set You Free.

You would think we might have conquered the problem by now. The fact that we have not came to mind last week, as I contemplated the onset of one of the gravest moments for the people pleaser: summer.

Working through July and August poses the constant risk of being asked to fill in for absent colleagues and do work that equally absent bosses fail to notice.

This year, as the humdrum trials of working life are compounded by cost-of-living miseries, it seems even more important to understand the persistent inability to say no.

The remorseless slew of books on the topic is not helping. Many make a reasonable fist of outlining the consequences of being too ready to say yes — exhaustion, resentment, burnout and so on.

But they struggle to identify the cause of the dilemma: poorly managed organisations that do not know who is doing what and do not formally recognise work that is vital but mostly invisible.

In other words, they blame individuals for a problem that is largely caused by organisational systems.

Some books offer useful guidance on how to be more assertive, or wily, about saying no. They rightly say too many of us worry unduly about letting others down, while too few appreciate the damage of being known as a workaholic doormat.

I will never forget hearing a senior executive from a large company explain that an internal search for people to promote had immediately ruled out anyone who compulsively worked through their evenings, weekends or vacations. These people obviously did not know how to prioritise or work effectively, the executive told me, so why would you promote them?

I have seen men fall into this trap. But I also remember the shocked look of a male colleague with the same job as mine, who one day saw my online calendar on my computer. “What’s all that?” he laughed, staring at all the appointments, meetings and task reminders crowding each week. His own calendar turned out to be virtually empty in comparison.

He was not alone. The thankless, invisible work that eats into time and career priorities is overwhelmingly done by women.

If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read an excellent book on saying no that came out last year called The No Club.

They repeatedly found research evidence that women were asked to do this work more than men, and were more likely to agree to do it

It was written by four female academics who realised that they and others like them were drowning in NPTs, or “non-promotable tasks”: mentoring, training, organising schedules, taking notes or serving on committees to pick a new travel company.

They repeatedly found research evidence that women were asked to do this work more than men, and were more likely to agree to do it.

In other words, there is a collective expectation that women will do more of the work that never makes it into an organisation’s press releases or weekly updates.

The story was the same whether women worked in supermarkets, airport security lines or law firms. At one big professional services firm, the authors found the average woman was spending about 200 hours a year — nearly one whole month — more than the average man on non-promotable work.

Their findings have had an impact. Some organisations have come up with ways to make staff aware of the NPT gender divide and allocate such work fairly.

A lot more must follow them. It’s not just fairer. It’s better for a business to use all its workers’ time well, rather than lumbering one group with so much stressful drudgery that they end up saying yes to a better job. — Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023

The top picture is of Westclox women after a retirement function in the Balloch Hotel in the 1970s.  A large percentage of the workers in local workplaces were women at the time. Can you put some names to faces?

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