In this post, however, I’d like to focus on the opposite (which is just as important): when you should say no, even when the opportunities are compelling.
When is that tipping point? How do you know? And how do you say no without burning bridges?
I get asked these questions most often by mid-career women.
When you are early in your career, taking more chances and opportunities makes sense.
But by the time mid-career comes around, you may have said yes to nearly everything, taken on whatever has been thrown at you, or taken the initiative to add more on to your plate in order grow your career and seek new challenges.
And at the mid-career level some women also have growing families or commitments outside of work that have also expanded.
So saying yes or no to new opportunities needs to be as intentional and thoughtful as possible.
But that isn’t always the case.
For example, sometimes we either agree to or turn down opportunities in response to automatic reactions to our own fears or assumptions about other people’s expectations.
Are you a “High Yes” Person?
Do you find yourself too-often:
- voluntarily offering to serve (or letting yourself be drawn in to serve) as the emotional container for everyone in the office just because you are good at listening, helping, and supporting people?
- agreeing to take on more just because you are hoping to be recognized as a team player, show your value, prove yourself, or show you can manage it all?
- saying yes because you cannot let go of so many exciting opportunities?
If you fall into this “High Yes” group, there is the real potential of burning out too early in your career (I was totally there at the end of my first career).
Or Are You a “High No” Person?
On the other end of the spectrum, do you find yourself too-often:
refusing to take on anything outside of your “official duties” because you fear being taken advantage of?
- turning down opportunities for fear that you are not ready or don’t feel confident?
- turning down opportunities for fear of not being able to handle it all?
If you instead fall into this “High No” group, there is a real potential of not being considered for other opportunities because people assume (rightly so) you will say no.
Making More Intentional and Purposeful Decisions
If you are on either end of this spectrum (or even if you are in the middle but not sure you are making those decisions all that intentionally), there may be significant costs to your professional success or personal time.
Recently, I’ve been turning down or letting go of certain opportunities – even some really compelling ones.
I was realizing that I couldn’t possibly take on more and still see my family, do my job well, grow my business thoughtfully, and keep all my other important commitments.
In each decision, I’ve tried to meet the following goals:
- Be thoughtful, intentional, and systematic. (Don’t jump in too quickly before having all the information).
- Avoid burning bridges when possible (you never know when one of those no’s turns into another future offer if the relationship is maintained).
- Identify and manage any emotional reactions that could interfere with smart decision-making.
If you can meet these goals, you can minimize unnecessary guilt trying to please everyone or unnecessary exhaustion trying to do it all.
Importantly, you want to leave room to be able to say yes to future opportunities that fit your longer-term goals and big-picture values.
Here are some steps you can take to meet the goals above:
1. Sleep On It. Regardless of how compelling a new opportunity is, always build in thinking time.
Example: Thank you so much for thinking of me! Can we set up a time to talk further to see if this would be good fit – both in terms of my own obligations and what you need?
2. Determine your Non-Negotiables. Ask questions that can inform how realistic it would be to add this new opportunity to your plate and provide a picture of what it would really look like.
Example: What is the expected time commitment? What are the potential drawbacks or challenges of this role? Who is part of the team and how involved would they be?
TIP: Work with someone (ideally a critical-thinker type) who can help you prepare a list of questions to get answered before making any commitments. This helps you get out of your own way.
3. Determine Negotiables. If after all your questions, you still see it as a highly compelling opportunity, consider saying yes, but only if you can also make room for it by saying no to other things. In this step, you are negotiating with yourself.
TIP: Each time you want to add a new activity, be clear about (1) what you need to make it manageable and (2) what you might need to let go of.
4. Check Yourself. Once you make a tentative decision, explore your internal reactions before moving forward.
TIP: Talk with someone about any reactions you have related to guilt, sadness, loss, or other mixed feelings that could interfere with your confidence in delivering the “no” successfully and with a finality that doesn’t drag the process out unnecessarily as a result of those mixed feelings.
5. Adjust Current Commitments. Are there adjustments that would need to be made in other activities in order to make room for a highly compelling opportunity? Write down all your commitments and review them for potential needed adjustments.
TIP: Set up a meeting with anyone who might be affected. Let them know you need to let the activity go and why. If it’s a long-term commitment that would create a significant change on the structure of a group, offer to explore creating a manageable transition plan so they aren’t left scrambling and you aren’t dragging out the process for too long.
When you demonstrate that you took a thoughtful and intentional process to turning down an opportunity, you will receive more respect and support for that decision.
For example, here are a few of the most recent responses I personally received when I decided I could no longer continue with some of my current obligations, despite my own initial feelings of guilt:
Colleague: "I deeply respect the straightforward way you’re approaching your commitments and making us aware of your thinking."
Group Member: “Thank you for including me in your decision-making process of transitioning out of this group.”
Group Leader: "Thank you for telling me this and not just dropping off quietly. That's also good role-modeling for the rest of our group to engage in something until it stops working for us!”
Leader: “I think you actually further strengthened our view of your leadership in the way you declined this offer. You made some tough decisions quickly and stuck to your values. That’s the sign of a true leader.”
That’s a serious bonus! If you are open, honest, and clear about managing your No’s, most people will respect and appreciate you MORE. They might even consider you more strongly for that new opportunity because they know you are thoughtful and intentional in all your decisions.
Have you had an experience like this? I’d love to hear your stories!