We've all done it. Taken on more work when the boss asks us to, even though we're already overloaded. So why can't we say no and how do we start saying it without offending anyone or risking our jobs?
Linda Reed-Enever runs a public relations consultancy that specialises in helping small businesses. She used to be overwhelmed with the amount of work she took on because she found it hard to refuse.
"My problem was that I would feel sorry for a small business and if they couldn't pay then I'd cut my rates to the bone so I could help them," she says. "But this meant there were months when I was really struggling. I would always make sure my staff and bills were paid but there'd be some months when I'd come out with very little."
Last year, after breaking her wrist, she had time to think about a new strategy.
"I had to delegate more, which was definitely good for me and for my staff as they became motivated by having new challenges. And I hardened myself to telling businesses that I could help them but stuck to a rate that was sustainable for my business. I also got rid of some clients who were the wrong mix for me and taking up all my resources."
But she admits saying no is really tough.
"People are good at pushing buttons to get what they want," she says. "But you need to be aware that sometimes expectations are unrealistic. When you say no it sounds like such a negative but it can impact negatively on you. It is actually okay to say you can't cope with certain jobs."
Josh Johnston is the founder of the Lifelong Group, which teaches people to think differently about how they work and live. He says you need to develop an overall awareness of your workload so you know exactly what your capacity is for taking on extra work.
"You don't want to just say no because you're too busy," he says. "You need to show your boss or colleagues what your working week looks like and this could mean physically showing them your week's schedule."
Having an understanding boss helps in this situation, but if you don't then Johnston says you should reframe the conversation so they have input.
"Point out your concerns to your boss," Johnston says. "Then ask him or her to help you prioritise your workload so you can take on what they want. You might be surprised by their response. I tried this once when I was overloaded and my boss decided what he wanted me to do wasn't so important after all."
Tiffany Quinlan is HR director at Randstad. She says saying no can be a real challenge because our natural inclination is to please.
"We say yes even though we know we can't deliver," she says. "And when we can't deliver then we are viewed as not being in control and that isn't good for anyone. We have to look at the reasons why we want to say no and they are generally because we are over-committed, we don't have the skills to do something, or we just don't want to because we feel it's not in our job description or it's something we feel is beneath us."
Quinlan says there are ways of saying no without offending anyone.
"If you are over-committed then say you'd be happy to do the task but you won't have time to do it until say, a couple of days time," she says. "If you can pull out your to-do list so much the better as this shows you are in control."
She adds in this case it's about managing expectations. "If the job is urgent then they will find someone else to do it but if you agree to it and don't deliver then no one comes out a winner."
If you need to refuse a job because you don't have the skills then Quinlan says the best thing to do is respond honestly.
"Say you'd love to take on the task but you've never done it before so perhaps someone could talk you through it," she says. "People struggle to admit they don't know everything but this way you are showing a desire to learn."
She adds the worst thing to do is to throw your hands up without saying why you won't do something as this likely means you're not going to be asked to do something again and your career could suffer.
"No one really knows what you have on your plate except yourself and the best way of saying no is to explain why you can't take something on," she says. "This is comforting to your boss as it shows you're trying to work out a solution."
- Sydney Morning Herald