Dealing with heavy workloads and demanding jobs is a regular experience for many people. They recognise that they are exhausted and need to rest or reduce their workload but get caught in a ‘yes trap’; they keep saying ‘yes’ when they need to be saying ‘no’.

Many valuable articles offer information on how to say ‘no’ at work using skills linked to communication, assertiveness and negotiating. This article goes behind the scenes to understand why it can be so hard to apply these skills, even when we have them. Here, I explore how to break the cycle of saying ‘yes’ and support ourselves emotionally to take steps towards saying ‘no’ when this is helpful and important to do so.

What does saying ‘yes’ at work look like when it goes too far?

  • Taking on more work when our plate is already full
  • Not delegating work and doing it all ourselves
  • Complying with other people’s perspectives and suppressing our voice
  • Not challenging or questioning and remaining passive
  • Pleasing others even when it is not in line with our values
  • Always being nice yet feeling resentful and irritable towards others
  • Always putting others’ needs before our own
  • Pushing ourselves to work when we need a mental health day or we are physically unwell
  • Attending work social events even though we need to rest
  • Regularly cancelling after-work plans (e.g. exercise classes, meeting friends or family) to work

Why do we get stuck saying ‘yes’ at work even when we need to do the opposite?

We may have learnt a long time ago (from families, schools, society, friends) to be good and do what we are told. We may have had this behaviour modelled to us by people around us who tended to comply or put others’ needs before theirs. We may have experienced repercussions for saying ‘no’ and therefore learnt that this is not acceptable behaviour. From an evolutionary perspective, it also makes sense that we do what we are told because we have a natural need to be accepted by a group and to feel like we belong.

Therefore, over the years we develop underlying fears and rules associated with saying ‘no’. We come to believe that if we say ‘no’ it means that:

  • We will upset others
  • We will cause conflict
  • Others will disapprove of us or be disappointed in us
  • Others will judge us as incapable and unable to cope
  • We are putting our needs first and this is wrong and selfish
  • We are being weak, and this is a sign of failing and not being good enough

If we buy into this line of thinking, it can be understandably scary to say ‘no’. Saying ‘yes’ becomes a safer option and a coping strategy that we think will prevent our fears from coming true.

We may continue saying ‘yes’ because it is rewarding. We may feel satisfied that we completed yet another task we said ‘yes’ to and that we got praise for it too. We may feel relieved that we are proving that we are good enough and that we secured people’s approval of us once more. Saying ‘yes’ can feel good. So, we do it again.

It can be tempting to say ‘yes’ because it can be a distraction from challenges in our lives (e.g. a bereavement, difficulties in our relationships). In these cases, it can be easier to lose ourselves in work rather than to feel and face our pain.

As we repeat this pattern, it becomes automatic and turns into a habit. It becomes such a familiar way of working (that has some benefits too) that some people do not know how else to act at work. Weforget to pause and check whether this way of working is still serving us and whether we still need it.

What are the long-term costs of saying ‘yes’ all the time?

When we say ‘yes’ automatically without awareness, it can become unhelpful to ourselves, others and even our organisation. Without enough space to think between tasks, to question things individually and together, we become ‘doing machines’ that are just churning out work. Over time, it is easy to see how stress and exhaustion can catch up with us. If left unaddressed, this does worsen for many people, resulting in difficulties sleeping, low mood, anxiety, burnout, physical health problems and a decrease in motivation, satisfaction and work performance.

When we comply and say ‘yes’ without thinking, challenging, and sharing our perspectives, there is a loss of richness and diversity of experiences, beliefs, and ideas within teams. These can bring significant costs to organisations which can become stagnant in one way of working.

Furthermore, when teams continue to stretch themselves without pushing back, organisations and team leaders are left under the impression that employees are coping well. This creates the risk that more expectations and demands are placed on employees and that problems with the system and infrastructure remain unacknowledged and unaddressed.

How can we get the balance right with saying ‘yes’ at work?

Saying ‘yes’ is part of working life. It may show our commitment and enthusiasm. Sometimes we may have no choice because it is part of our job role and responsibilities to say ‘yes’ to working longer to meet a deadline, to give our colleagues a helping hand or cover for someone who is off sick. The point here is not to swing from always saying ‘yes’ to always saying ‘no’, but to find a middle ground where we can kindly and assertively say ‘no’ when it is helpful and important to do so.

5 Ns that can help us turn towards saying ‘No’

Saying ‘no’ is not easy, however, it is a skill that we can master with practice. Here are five Ns that can help you start to slow down, understand what fears are holding you back, and choose a different behaviour that is in line with your values:

1. Name your pattern of saying ‘yes’

Gain clarity and understanding of your ‘yes trap’ by writing down your answers to these questions. What triggers you to say ‘yes’? What are you afraid will happen if you say ‘no’? When you say ‘yes’, what do you say, how do you act? How do you feel afterwards? How is saying ‘yes’ rewarding for you? Does it bring with it costs in the long term?

2. Notice your pattern in action

Pay attention to when your ‘yes trap’ is in action at work. Here you are working on your self-awareness muscle. You may catch yourself in the act of saying ‘yes’ or afterwards. When you do, acknowledge that it happened with a light-hearted touch (‘there it was again!’). Observing yourself in this way can slow down your automatic reactions and over time give you space to consider whether saying ‘yes’ is the right move in that moment.

3. Normalise it with kindness and non-judgment

It can feel frustrating and disappointing to get caught in our ‘yes trap’ again when we know it is unhelpful. We can fall into another trap of judging, criticising, and berating ourselves for this, which tends to add a layer of unnecessary suffering to our experience. Instead, we can practice responding to ourselves like a kind and wise coach who acknowledges that breaking habits is hard for all of us. Remind yourself that in the context of your past learning and evolutionary tendencies, it makes sense that you got caught in this pattern again. You have practiced this habit so many times that you are good at it now; this may take time and trial and error to break.

4. Nudge yourself towards taking action to say ‘no’

Identify areas in your working life where you can start to say ‘no’. List down the different ways you can say ‘no’, set boundaries or limits and develop a plan around putting this into action. You can do this alone or with your line manager or boss.

Then start with the easiest action in a context and with people you feel comfortable with such as letting a close colleague know that something has to wait till tomorrow. You can then work up towards harder actions such as delegating work to others or pushing back on deadlines with a client.

In terms of how to actually say ‘no’, you may need to draw on your communication, assertiveness, negotiating and problem-solving skills. If you notice that you struggle with these skills, then it may be worth investing more time and practice in developing them so that you feel better equipped.

Taking a different action is going against what your brain expects, so be prepared to experience some discomfort and anxiety in the process. Your mind may incorrectly perceive this change as a threat and work hard to get you to safety, by trying to talk you out of it, finding excuses not to do it, and catastrophising the worst-case scenarios. This fear makes sense because trying something new can be scary. However, the reality may not be as bad as the mind predicts; it is just being overprotective, and you do not have to believe it. Thank your mind for trying to keep you safe and let it know that it is important for you to give this a try even though it is hard.

5. Note your learning and practice again

Approach your new behaviour as an experiment and remain open to learning from it, whether it goes well or not. Your colleagues/managers may respond positively and with understanding, or with frustration. If they have a negative reaction, this is normal; they may be under pressure themselves or be taken aback if they are used to you saying ‘yes’. Just like you are learning a different way of working, they may need time to adjust to this too.

Once you practice taking your first action in saying ‘no’ or setting a boundary, reflect on what you have learnt and use this to guide your next action. You may realise that you can tweak your method of saying ‘no’ to make it more effective. You may want to practice the same action again or move on to trying something different or more challenging. As we are building a new habit, practice and repetition is important. Over time, it will become easier as your underlying fears will have less of a hold over your actions and you can act more freely based on what you know is right for you.

Let’s not forget the system

There are many ways in which organisations, senior leadership, and work cultures are maintaining the pressure to keep saying ‘yes’. The agenda to increase profit and prevent financial risks can take precedence over what is realistic to expect of employees.

Many of my clients have disclosed experiences where their attempts to say ‘no’ and set limits are looked down on and not accepted. Some have been criticised for not being not hard working or taking initiative and they have received negative mid/end of year performance reviews. For others, their requests for time off are questioned and they are still expected to work 14-hour days.

This is not the norm, and countless teams and organisations strongly advocate for employee well-being and create infrastructures to support this. It is important to build on this and for team leaders to reflect on their position around saying ‘no’ and setting boundaries. Like their teams, leaders too can find it hard to say ‘no’, to push back and give negative feedback and it can also be hard to hear and accept ‘no’ from others. Leaders can benefit from understanding their resistance to saying ‘no’ so that they can work through these blocks. Modelling that it is OK to say ‘no’ through their own behaviour can make it safer for others to do the same too, and lead towards working environments that are conducive to human wellness as well as organisational success.

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