4 minute read

The Purposeful Workday

Saying No

By virtue of low rank in the organizational hierarchy, twenty-somethings are responsible for meeting the needs of the many individuals who qualify as supervisors. Work rolls downhill from all the people above you and lands in a giant heap on your plate. Many older—but not necessarily wiser—managers have no qualms about piling it on and watching an eager-to-please twenty-something scramble around like a rat in a maze. Well, even if you're an efficient multitasker, you're never going to be Superman. Don't sabotage your goals by taking on more work than you can do just because someone asks you to. Staying true to the priorities we talked about in the last section means learning to say no sometimes.

No is a tricky word in business, because you always want to be perceived as a can-do employee. In general, you should try to preempt situations in which you will have to decline an assignment. A good first step is to formalize your daily responsibilities with your official boss. Find out who on your team is authorized to delegate work to you, and note the type of assignments you can expect from each person. Let's say that Joe, who is outside this core group of delegators, gives you a stack of expense reports to process. How should you respond? It's perfectly appropriate to politely reply that you would be glad to help, but that you would appreciate it if Joe would check with your manager first. Joe may or may not pursue the matter, but, either way, you have extricated yourself from an awkward situation and have placed the ball squarely in your boss's court. In all likelihood, your boss will say no to Joe for you, especially if processing expense reports is outside your area of responsibility.

Now imagine that Jane, a member of your core group of delegators, leaves an urgent assignment on your chair that must be done by the end of the week. Jane has known about the task for a few days, but now it's Friday morning and the deadline is looming. As my mother used to say, don't let another person's lack of planning become your emergency. If your own “to do” list dictates you do something else, speak up. Tell Jane that you wish you could do the task for her, but you are currently working on a project with Tom that requires your attention. Give her the option of resolving the issue with Tom or your boss, and emphasize how much you enjoy working with her. Ideally, Jane will leave the interaction with the perception that you sincerely do want to help her, but that you can't help being caught between conflicting responsibilities.

What if your boss is the one with an urgent request that you don't have the time to attend to? In a way, this is the least painful scenario, because all you really have to do is ask her to help you prioritize your various assignments. You can say something such as, “I'd be happy to take care of that, but today I'm researching statistics for Tom's client presentation. Which do you think I should do first?” If your boss wants to snatch your time at Tom's expense, that's her prerogative. Again, though, you have made someone else accountable for deciding which of the competing tasks you should direct your energy toward. Note that in all of these cases, you have declined to take on a new task. However, the actual word no and the phrase I don't have time are absent from the conversation. Always strive to present yourself as a hardworking and disciplined employee with the best interests of the department and company at heart.

One last point: subscribing to the servant mentality is not good time management, even if you're not preoccupied with any urgent tasks. When you get into the habit of springing into action the moment a higher-up appears at your desk, people will come to expect that you are always available. Suddenly your delegators won't think twice about asking you to do all kinds of Category 3 (urgent and nonimportant) tasks. Meanwhile, Category 2 (nonurgent and important) priorities, such as professional development and on-the-job training, will slip farther and farther down your “to do” list. Remember, in the big-picture scheme of things, Category 2 should be ahead of Category 3, so no matter how busy your department is, always make time in your schedule for Category 2 activities. Have trouble doing this? Take note of the time it takes you to complete Category 3 assignments. For example, if you think it will take you an hour to create a new database for your boss, tell him you'll have it done by the end of the day. Also, instead of asking for new work the second you encounter a few free hours, spend some quality time researching your company's products, participating in on-site training, or meeting with your mentor (Category 2 activities). It's probably long overdue.

It might be difficult to turn your back on a Category 3 task that's presented to you or to set aside company time for your own Category 2 needs. But think about it this way: You have to say no to something. It's either the nonimportant or the important things. You decide.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCareer Advice: Career 101 for Recent Graduates, New Hires, and Would-be Corporate ClimbersThe Purposeful Workday - Where Has All The Time Gone?, Saying No, Battling Procrastination, You, Too, Can Be The “organized One”