How Saying No May Help Build Your Career

Learn how to say no at work, and see how the power of no can help you move up the career ladder and reduce your risk of burnout.

portrait of Joanna Kalafatis
by Joanna Kalafatis

Published on June 29, 2022 · Updated on July 1, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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How Saying No May Help Build Your Career
Image Credit: 10'000 Hours / DigitalVision / Getty Images


Many people, especially women, feel compelled to say yes to opportunities at work to seem like ambitious, hard-working employees. However, if you say yes to everything, you might actually end up holding yourself back in your career.

In their research and book "The No Club," four female professors found that women's excessive burden of non-promotable work often holds them back. The professors found that women are asked to take on menial tasks and non-promotable work more often. They're also more likely to say yes to such requests.

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Learn how to say no at work to tasks that don't match your skills or goals, and use the power of no to move up the career ladder.

Passionate People Are at a Higher Risk for Burnout

One reason employees say yes is to prove their passion for their work. A group of researchers, including Duke University professor Aaron Kay, Duke Ph.D. student Jae Kim, University of Oregon professor Troy Campbell, and Oklahoma State University professor Steven Shepherd, researched the phenomenon of passion exploitation.

The researchers completed eight different studies with a total of 2,400 participants. They found that companies and employers are more likely to exploit employees they view as passionate. They also found that passion exploitation exists in almost every field of work, but more so in areas traditionally associated with passion, such as art and social work.

This exploitation happens in many forms. For example, employers might ask employees to work on their days off or assume tasks outside their duties.

Employees who work more hours for no additional pay increase their risk of burnout. To reduce this risk and maintain a work-life balance you're comfortable with, consider saying no if someone asks you to complete extra, unpaid labor.

Why Don't We Say No?

Many people find it difficult to say no — even when they're already overwhelmed and overcapacity — because they want to please their boss and co-workers. While saying yes may seem like the easier response in the short term, it can cause stress and anxiety in the long term.

Employees who want to climb the career ladder sometimes fall victim to the planning fallacy — a prediction phenomenon where people underestimate how long a task will take them, even if they've completed the task before. They say yes because they underestimate how long a project will take, only to later realize they put too much on their plate.

Others may not want to say no too often because they consider it selfish.

Dr. Amantha Imber, an organizational psychologist and the author of "Time Wise," summarizes the difficulties of saying no well.

"Many of us have an inner (or not so inner) people-pleaser, which makes us want to say yes to requests on our time. Saying no creates conflict and tension and we feel like we are letting the other person down."

— Dr. Amantha Imber

What Are the Benefits of Saying Yes?

Sometimes saying yes is the right answer. You just have to say it to the right opportunities, such as those that can help with your career development and allow you to maintain your desired work-life balance.

  • Determine how interesting and exciting the request is for you and how it aligns with your goals. Does this new task or project help you move forward in your chosen career path? Does it give you a good return on your investment of labor?
  • Evaluate if you can actually do the project. Do you have the time to commit to this new task? Remember the planning fallacy — a good rule of thumb is to add about 20% to the time you think a project may take.
  • Ask for clarification about the duties and expectations for the project. As Alysia Helming, a green energy entrepreneur and founder of EarthStudios, says, "People often say yes because they are excited about a project or an opportunity, but they haven't yet collected all the facts, such as the deadline and what their exact role is."
  • If the project demands more work than you can contribute, check and see if a trusted co-worker can help you. Or ask for some sort of compensation if the project justifies it.

"In my experience, women tend to grant more favors pro bono with the hope to get something out of it later, whereas a man is more likely to state upfront if he feels the ask is outside of a reasonable favor, and request compensation," Helming says.

When to Say No

To determine if you should say no, clarify what priorities and values are important to you. This will help you differentiate the tasks and requests that can help you advance from those that will only drain your time and energy.

Also, take some time to think about the request. Try not to respond immediately. If you bypass the knee-jerk reaction to say yes, you may find it easy to say no later.

Elizabeth Zimick, the assistant vice president of strategic enterprise - financial services at Salesforce, considers one of her strengths to be focused prioritization. She learned this early on while managing a junior-level team.

"Oftentimes they came to me with questions that they could find the answers to … it's easy to get sucked into that because you want to feel needed and you want to help, but at the end of the day, it's enabling a behavior and it's not actually value-added work."

If people ask you to do work they can do themselves, you can establish boundaries by saying no.

How to Say No

If you do decide to say no to a task, learn how to say no in a firm but compassionate way.

One way people learn to say no is to practice in relatively low-stakes situations, such as when responding to social events at work that you can't attend.

For example, "I would love to attend this weekend event, but I need to rest to do my best work next week."

When you do say no at work, say it clearly and directly.

According to Dr. Imber, "A quick and clear no is often the best approach." Many people won't say no or fail to respond clearly to requests to avoid conflict, but this usually leads to more stress and frustration.

If you have a reason to say no, share it with the person making the request. Being clear about your boundaries can help reduce the number of unproductive requests you get in the future.

Dr. Imber gives the following script as an example: "I can't take on this project because I am already at capacity for this month." Short, simple, and honest reasons are usually effective.

The Power of Saying No

If you say yes to every request, you may actually be saying no to yourself. When you say no to unproductive or time-wasting tasks, you can prioritize your career path and goals.

In "The No Club," Lise Vesturlund, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, analyzed the time men and women at a large consultancy firm spent on non-promotable work, i.e., menial tasks and time-consuming tasks.

Vesterlund found that the median yearly time spent by women on non-promotable work was approximately 200 hours more than the median yearly time spent by men.

This came at the expense of meaningful work that could have helped women progress in their careers. According to Vesterlund, "Women feel guilty when they say no — because we expect them to say yes." As a result, women often end up completing a lot of tasks that don't help them achieve their own goals.

Bottom Line

Many employees — especially passionate ones — find it hard to say no to requests at work. However, if you clearly and kindly say no to work that takes your focus away from your priorities, it may help your career in the long run.

Employees who say no to unproductive requests can allocate more time to important projects that bring them closer to their goals. Saying no may also help people avoid burnout and enjoy a better work-life balance.


With Advice From:

Portrait of Amantha Imber

Amantha Imber

Dr. Amantha Imber is an organizational psychologist and founder of the behavioral science consultancy Inventium. Imber is also the host of the business podcast "How I Work," which has over 3 million downloads. She interviews some of the world's most successful people about their habits, strategies, and rituals. She is also the author of two bestselling books: "The Creativity Formula" and "The Innovation Formula."




Portrait of Alysia Helming

Alysia Helming

Alysia Helming is a global game-changer who passionately supports clean energy, sustainability, and women's empowerment. She raises awareness on environmental issues worldwide through her work as an environmentalist, bestselling author, and producer.




Portrait of Elizabeth Zimick

Elizabeth Zimick

Liz Zimick is an AVP at Salesforce where she runs strategic enterprise within the financial services organization. She's responsible for leading a team that creates enterprise relationships and helps drive digital transformation across the largest insurance companies in the U.S. Zimick has held several executive-level roles across the legal, tax, and insurance industries.

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