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Why we always say 'yes' at work when we should be saying 'no'

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
We often say ‘yes’ at work even if it leaves us overstretched. Photo: Tim Goode/EMPICS Entertainment
We often say ‘yes’ at work even if it leaves us overstretched. Photo: Tim Goode/EMPICS Entertainment

It’s a scenario many of us can relate to. You’re up to your ears in work, and your boss asks you to take on a new project.

You know you’ve got too much on, and that the sensible thing to do is to say no – or at least ask for more time to finish what you’re already doing. Instead, you find yourself saying yes, and your workload begins to pile up.

More often than not, we find ourselves agreeing to do every single task at work – even when we’re already overstretched with maddeningly long to-do lists and professional obligations. It’s something we’re hardwired to do in order to please our bosses and prove our worth, but it’s not always beneficial.

Taking on too many responsibilities can lead to poor quality, rushed or unfinished work. Rather than impressing your manager, increased work intensity can lead to “inferior work outcomes”, researchers at City University reported last year. The results suggested that the negative outcomes of overworking may actually outweigh the positives.

READ MORE: How to overcome career paralysis

Working too hard can also lead to stress, anxiety and burnout, too. Last year, a study of more than 1,000 US workers found that many of the “highly engaged” employees were exhausted, and ready to quit.

Two out of three employees experience burnout, according to a recent Gallup poll, a problem which can seriously impact physical and mental health.

Sometimes we can’t avoid being busy. But when we’re agreeing to do more and more to our detriment, why do we find it so hard to say no?

‘We are brought up to be people pleasers’

“One is that so many of us are brought up to be people pleasers, to feel like letting someone else down or displeasing them, is worse than not pleasing ourselves,” says Cori Javid, a success coach and business mentor for mothers with online businesses.

“The other aspect, which is tied to this idea of people pleasing is that we are taught from a young age to seek validation from outside of ourselves,” she adds. “Whether that be parents and teachers earlier in life and then colleagues, bosses, spouses later in life.

“Seeking that validation externally can definitely create in us a tendency to say yes to too much because we are worried about external disapproval, rather than checking in with our internal guidance first.”

READ MORE: Why do some job adverts put women off applying?

How job insecurity and cognitive bias affect our decisions

Job insecurity and economic uncertainty can also lead to people feeling compelled to take on too much to prove their worth. Around one in eight UK workers believe they could lose their job in the next 12 months, according to a recent survey.

Research suggests we are also prone to underestimating our workload, too. Lots of us fall prey to the planning fallacy, a cognitive bias in which we fail to accurately predict how much time we need to complete a task. In one study, students working on a project estimated they would be finished 30 days earlier than they actually did.

“One negative impact of saying yes all the time is that first and foremost we fail to properly consider what we need, what serves us, our desires and our interests,” says Javid. “We can find ourselves drifting far from the career path or business that we had intended to create for ourselves.

“The other problem with saying yes to everything is that we fail to consider the flip side. For in every yes we are in that same moment saying no to something else.”

‘Women are often too afraid to say no’

In order to harness the power of saying no, Javid adds, we have to carefully consider if the work in question is something important to us – and if we can logistically make room for it to happen.

You might also consider whether agreeing to do the work will lead to you working overtime, ditching evening plans, or time with your family and friends. Another issue is whether the extra work will distract you from your job and responsibilities.

“I think as women, in particular, we are often too afraid to say no. But a considered no, backed up with a solid and true justification is a way of maintaining boundaries, and people are in fact often really respectful when we stick to our boundaries,” Javid says.

“I think the flaw in our thinking when we feel we must say yes for fear of getting into trouble, is that there will in fact be some kind of backlash. So often that isn’t the case.”