By JOYCE KADUKI
In the traditional African setting, women were the primary caregivers in homes. They took care of children, the sick and the elderly, among a myriad of other household chores. This was in addition to shouldering activities outside the home like tilling the land. As a result, saying ‘yes’ to a wide range of requests came naturally to them.
Today, the world has changed. A lot of women now work outside the home, in addition to taking time to go to school and advance their careers.
That notwithstanding, they have to continue balancing their responsibilities at home and in society, alongside increased responsibilities at the workplace.
As women rise through the ranks at work, it’s tempting for them to feel obligated to continue saying ‘yes’ to demands on their time and expertise.
Why the pressure to say yes?
Reasons range from the likely and reasonable to the irrational. There is fear of rejection, looking incompetent, being labeled a failure, upsetting others – especially one’s bosses – and the related risks of being passed over for a promotion or facing other disciplinary actions, and in extreme cases, losing one’s job.
This equation is further complicated by the fact that women are highly relational. Studies indicate that because of this, they care for others’ feelings and will go to great lengths to avoid disappointing them. There is also a fair number of women who are just plain people-pleasers. They get a kick out of feeling needed, and therefore saying ‘yes’ feeds that need.
While helpfulness and relating are noble qualities, they have a dark side, which rears its ugly head when women operate in the default ‘yes’ mode. Those who over-exert themselves as a result of an inability or reluctance to say ‘no’ even when they should, have been known to suffer from anxiety, guilt, stress, high-blood pressure and outright sickness.
Sometimes, saying ‘no’ even when the pressure to say ‘yes’ is high is the better option, and protects the interests of both the person making the request or demand, and those of the person the ask is directed to.
The following situations – which apply to men as much as they do to women – are good examples.
Non-priority items that don’t optimise use of your time and energy
Let’s face it. No one has unlimited reserves of time or energy. Since you cannot do everything, you need to determine what is key. How then, can you identify what to allocate your time and energy to? Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, introduced the time management matrix as a good guide in helping one to prioritise activities in terms of their importance and urgency.
The four quadrants in the matrix enable one to identify what to prioritise, minimise and eliminate altogether. Quadrant 1 contains tasks and responsibilities that are both urgent and important, and should therefore be given immediate attention. Quadrant 2 is for items that are important but not urgent. One should curve out time for these, as they are key to long-term development and strategising. Quadrant 3 has urgent but unimportant items, which should be minimised or eliminated. Some of them can be delegated. Quadrant 4 contains items that are both unimportant and not urgent. They have no value, are time-wasters, and should be eliminated. From this summary, it’s easy to see that to ensure best use of limited time and energy one should say ‘no’ to some quadrant 3 items, and to quadrant 4 items. Don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by stuff you have no business spending time on. On his part, Steve Jobs said that “It’s only by saying ‘no’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”
Maximise on your strengths
You cannot do everything that is on your job description equally well. You don’t even need to, because some of it is work that can be delegated. Therefore, take time to establish which of your responsibilities can only be done best by you, and prioritise them.
If you are in a position to choose what you will spend your time on (understandably, this is not possible in certain jobs and offices), choose to spend more time working in your strength zone. Find the thing that you do well, and maximise on it.
Build capacity in others
Saying ‘no’ to some requests and passing them to others on your team instead can help you build capacity in those working with you. The responsibilities you have passed on will stretch the people who will handle them, thus developing their capacity.
Renowned leadership author, teacher and speaker John C. Maxwell says that if someone else can do a task at least 80 per cent as well as he can, he gives it to them. That inevitably builds their capacity. Your ‘no’ therefore becomes a plus to others on your team who end up being entrusted with more responsibilities.
If what you are being asked to do is clearly against your values, you are better off saying ‘no’. It is important to do this respectfully, but firmly. Granted, sometimes you may end up paying a heavy price in the short term for turning down an offer or request; but at least you won’t pay the price into the long term for having agreed to something that is against your values.
Clearly, saying ‘no’ to some things will help you concentrate on what maximises use of your time and energy, helps you preserve your values and builds the capacity of others on your team. John Maxwell summarises it well: “Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.”
As a bonus, one way to say ‘no’ successfully is to avoid giving an answer immediately.
That gives you time to objectively evaluate the request put to you; possibly modify the scope of what you are being asked for or to do, and in the event you decide to say ‘no’, to carefully craft your response.