Working Hard and Saying No

I'm really not sure what I plan to write about, but it's been too long since I've last written. One of the reasons is that I've been taking on more responsibility at work, which is fun, exciting, and challenging. My current big challenge is taking a project that has been under development for two years and banging it into a decent enough shape so that we have a product we can sell.

I think one of the reasons this product is now nearing its third year of development without seeing the light of day is not just that it's a large project (which it is), but it seems like the project has not had enough people saying, "No". There are many choices that were made in the name of flexibility, but ultimately it looks like those choices have distracted from solving the actual problem. If "no" was uttered more frequently, I think it's likely that this project would be much more viable than it currently is. I've noticed that in the professional world people have a really hard time saying, "No."

Saying, "No," is a tricky business, though. We have a desire to please - please our customers, please our boss. We also want to keep our jobs. If you do not learn to say, "No," gracefully, then it's likely that you'll lose customers, and maybe even your job. I think that saying, "No," in a way that your boss is happy to hear is a bit of an art. I don't know if it's a skill I have, but hopefully it's one that I'm able to develop. When your boss comes to you with a request, they have a set of understanding and a goal that they want to achieve. Some bosses have been conditioned to believe that whatever they say is scripture (if you have a boss like that, and you can't get through to them, then you probably need to find a new boss).

The key is helping your boss understand that her goals are your goals (and as long as she's supporting you and yours, they should be - at least during work hours). So when she comes to you with something she wants done, you need to figure out how to best make that happen. In most cases the requests are probably going to be perfectly reasonable. But on occasion those requests are just going to be flat-out insane. The problem is that in the mind of your boss, she hasn't realized that yet. She may want you to aggregate TPS reports from your 300-person department by the meeting at 2:30 PM, collated with 2-sided high-gloss color copy. And given that it's 12:45 PM and you haven't even finished your lunch yet, you know it's entirely impossible to produce what she needs. Now is your chance to say, "No."

Of course, if you flip your table over and yell, "No way!" Then you're probably going to have problems. On the other hand, if you say something like, "I would love to be able to get that report for you... but the last three times I did that report it took me 4.5 hours. Given that the meeting is only in two hours, there's just no way I'm going to be able to get that done. What do you need the report for at the meeting? Is there something else we can do instead? Alternatively, Jenny has a lot of experience with TPS reports, and I think if we split up the work the two of us might be able to get you the TPS report. Now, I'm not sure if we'll be able to get the collating done by that time, but we'll definitely do our best!

You've given her a, "No," but you've also proposed some alternate solutions. That's really what it's about - finding the right solution to the problem. And if you want to be a valuable employee then it's also your job. Figuring out solutions to their problems. If you can solve problems that plague your boss - even if they're smaller problems - you will be an extremely valuable asset. Most people are not problem solvers, they're problem creators. If you continually solve problems, then you will continually find yourself with more and more responsibility. Of course, some companies don't provide enough room to grow, and so you may be saying, "No," to a continued relationship with your company. But that should be a good thing, too. If you have outgrown your company, or there's no longer a good fit, that's when it's time to move on.

But while you're there, make the most of it. Learn to say, "No." Learn to say it in such a way that your boss will be happy to hear it. Cut out the distractions and focus on the things that are really important.

Just say, "No."

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