Why saying no can make you indispensable at work

Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire where the she spent the last years of her life.  The author was a whizz at saying no. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire where the she spent the last years of her life. The author was a whizz at saying no. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

 Last weekend I went to see the house in Hampshire where Jane Austen spent the last years of her life and learnt something unexpected about the great author: she was a whizz at saying no.

Her house is now a museum and in it you can read about a letter she wrote to an annoying man named James Stanier Clarke, a librarian to the future king, who had been urging her to make her next novel a royal “historical romance”.

Austen began by larding it on. “You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me,” she told Clarke, adding she was “fully sensible” that a royal romance might sell more than her tales of contemporary domestic life in country villages.

Then she got to the point: she could only write such a book to save her life and even then she would struggle. “No – I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way.” This might end badly but following any other path would spell certain disaster.

Essential skill

I kept thinking about that letter on the drive back home, because knowing how to say no at work has always struck me as an essential skill. Knowing how to do it in a pandemic, when job insecurity is rife, seems even more important.

There are two fairly obvious reasons why constantly saying yes to all requests is a bad idea.

First, it is exhausting and there is a large chance that life is draining enough right now, whether you are lucky enough to have a job or not.

Also, being overwhelmed and knackered makes it much easier to make mistakes at work, which no one wants to be doing at the moment.

But there is a third, less apparent reason why saying no is vital. It makes it more likely that you will become what a lot of workers are desperate to be at the moment: influential and indispensable.

In my experience, the most valued people in the office are not the ones who take on the most ludicrous workloads or play the best office politics.

Rather, they demonstrate their worth by being easy to work with and super competent. That means they stick to doing what they are good at, ration their time and know not just when to say no but how.

I had an early lesson in how to say no drilled into me long ago in a Sydney newsroom where I was doing what keen young reporters do and desperately trying to follow a blizzard of barked orders.

An older journalist offered some advice I never forgot. “Distract the baby,” she said, explaining it was never a good idea to refuse to do something outright. Rather, one should listen and, if the request was truly mad, come up with a plausible alternative that would satisfy the requester.

I refined this idea over the years, having had a few stints at trying to get other people to do things.

Blunt no

I still think saying a blunt no is counterproductive. But rather than trying to artfully distract, I am more inclined to take the Austen approach: be polite but dispense with all sugar-coating and spell out precisely why you will not be saying yes.

The importance of saying no happens to be one of the messages in a new book from Bruce Tulgan, a US management researcher who has spent nearly 30 years studying the way people work in places ranging from Walmart to the US military and the YMCA.

His book was written before the pandemic. But one of its central ideas is the need to avoid what he calls “over-commitment syndrome”: the understandable urge to prove one’s value at a time of great anxiety and uncertainty.

“Fight it,” he says. “If you try to do everything for everybody, you’ll end up doing nothing for anybody.”

You are also likely to end up doing something you are not very good at that will end badly, as Austen doubtless knew.

She was of course writing at a very different time and in a very different place to the modern office. But her letter shows why she, like her novels, remain as relevant as ever today.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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