Page would like to be more assertive, yet professional, at work, but every time her boss approaches her to take on yet another assignment, she says “yes,” even though she knows she doesn’t have time for it.
We say “yes,” because “we have a real desire not to let down our bosses,” says negotiations coach Jim Camp. “People are afraid if they say they can’t do it, they look incompetent or incapable.”
Saying, simply, that you don’t have time to do a project may cast you as uncooperative. But it doesn’t help anyone if you say “yes” while knowing you can’t possibly complete all the work. You will have created the crisis by saying “yes.”
How can you set boundaries more assertively with your boss, without coming across as incapable or rude?
1. Say “thank you” for the opportunity to take on something new. Being asked shows that your boss believes in you, says Tres Roeder, author of A Sixth Sense of Project, so acknowledge it with appreciation.
2. Stall. If you suspect your plate is full, let your boss know that you’re juggling several time-sensitive projects. Say, “Would you give me 10 minutes to look at the details of this new task and see how I might accomplish it by your deadline?”
The key is to avoid automatically saying “yes” or “no.”
3. Estimate. How long will it take to reach various milestones for the project? Take the information back to the boss, along with a proposal for when you could accomplish the work, or reach the first milestone.
4. Ask your boss to prioritize for you. If you say yes, despite the fact that you have too many hot projects, ask your boss, “Should I stop working on X and Y in order to finish this project first? What’s more important?”
If you report to multiple bosses, of course, the question isn’t as straightforward. You’ll have to pose the question to both managers in order to understand priorities.
5. Pull in reinforcements. If you’ve been cultivating relationships, you may have others who can help you. If you’ve been asked to pull together a spreadsheet as part of a larger presentation, perhaps someone with Excel prowess can pitch in and help.
Bonus: Knowing how to partner with team members shows your skill at managing relationships and solving problems.
6. Consider what the discomfort of “yes” could mean. Could it be that this project will stretch your skills? Could it be a way to get you noticed?
Sometimes the urge to say “no” comes from a fear of failure. If your manager is handing you the work in order to push your skills ahead, try to fit it in, recommends Roeder.
7. Start giving weekly status updates. If your boss doesn’t have a sense of how much you juggle, start telling him.
“Managers can’t see into every employee’s world,” says Evelyn Williams, a Wake Forest University professor of organizational behavior. “You have to tell them what’s happening in the trenches so they can make better allocation decisions.”
— Adapted from “When You’re the Worker Who Can’t Say No,” Eilene Zimmerman, The New York Times.
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