The Answer Is No: Prioritization and the Art of Quality Over Quantity
For some of us it’s really hard to say no. We often hear USAID mission staff and implementing partners say they can’t do CLA because they don’t have the time. I would argue that it’s because they don’t say no enough! We have an innate desire to want to please people and feel useful. It’s how many of us find value in our work. Unfortunately, there is a negative correlation--the more useful you become, the more people want to use your time, and the less time you have to actually produce anything. You may also be asked to do more work to compensate for the less effective or productive people on the team. Now, you could be one of those rare people that get to the point where they are paid hundreds of dollars per hour just to give advice, but the reality is that 99 percent of us live the daily grind of meetings, reports, and all the other lovely tasks that come along with structure and bureaucracy.
I’ve learned to say no. I’ve served in three very busy USAID missions and now in Washington, and saying no has helped increase the quality of my work and help me better manage my time to weed out those tasks that don’t actually lead to any impact. Sometimes I use the overt and blunt no that can often be undiplomatic. Unfortunately, I often sporadically contract Foot in Mouth disease in the middle of a conversation. Don’t follow my example! But, there are many ways to say no without being mean or aggressive. I’ve laid out a variety of ways, some of which might be a better fit with your personality than others.
The Absolutely Not Person. By and far the most undiplomatic, and direct refusal, that you will find. This person typically feels overwhelmed, stressed, or just can’t be bothered to do anything outside their job description. They can often seem angry or pessimistic depending on the request and sometimes hope to preempt any future requests by being overly blunt or challenging. A slightly more diplomatic version of a hard no would be to tell your supervisor that you absolutely can’t take on any more responsibilities at this time. Your relationship with your supervisor will also determine whether this type of no may be an option. Many people never feel comfortable with the hard no.
The Passive Aggressor. This person can sometimes be known as Mr./Ms. Excuses. They hate to say no directly, but aren’t averse to saying no without saying no, or just not doing what’s asked of them. This type of no is incredibly effective with passive aggressive supervisors (of which there are many, unfortunately) that don’t directly ask you to do something, but hint around the edges or mix in phrases such as, “It would be great if …” Here’s an example:
Passive Aggressive Boss: It would be great if you could do that report that I asked for.
Passive Aggressive Employee: Well, I didn’t know you wanted it now.
Or: Sure, no problem.
(And then they just don’t do it.)
Action Jackson No. Have you ever seen anyone just get up and leave a meeting or make an excuse and duck out. This is them saying no with their feet, or essentially saying that the meeting is boring or unimportant and they have better things to do. It may seem like a passive aggressive way to say no, but sometimes it’s just necessary. Especially when you are in one of those meetings that never seem to end!
The “It’s Good Enougher”. This week I have 17 tasks that will require roughly 75 hours to complete. I can either stop sleeping, or half ass some of those less important tasks. Better complete than late right? These people are usually inclined to deliver sub-standard work, especially if they know it’s busy work or someone is unlikely to actually read it, or if it’s something that they don’t care about or aren’t invested in. Another option is to review your task list with your supervisor and decide together what can be less than perfect. One supervisor used to say, “We’re all A+ students, but sometimes we have to know when to do C+ work.”
The Diplomat Prioritizer. This is by far the most effective person at saying no. I’d recommend this technique to anyone, but you really have to be great at negotiation and being able to hold a firm no in the face of pushback. Such as, “I’ll do what you are asking, but tell me which other tasks I can turn in late or cut from my workload.” “No, nothing can be late or cut? Ok, then no, I’m not able to take on the extra work you are proposing.” The key here is having your argument well prepared ahead of time. Other diplomats like to sandwich their no between two yeses or compliments, which can take the focus off the no. Here’s an example:
The Diplomat: I really love the way that you have been managing the office and the focus on increasing the quality of our work lately.
The Supervisor: Thanks, I appreciate that.
The Diplomat: In order to maintain our emphasis on quality, I’m really not able to take on any additional work at the moment until I get through some of the tasks I’m working on now. And, I really appreciate the fact that you care about the office work-life balance, which is why I feel comfortable being honest with you about what I can and can’t do.
So, those are just a few techniques for saying no to your supervisor. To really work smarter you also have to be able to say no to other things as well. Just to name a few examples, you should say no to: a second doughnut that may expand your waistline or give you a sugar crash; that third or fourth beer and potential workday hangover; Netflix binge watching that takes away from a decent night’s sleep; and anything that might cause you to lose that valuable weekend time that we need to re-charge our batteries.It’s time to start saying no! You can do it! Give it a shot and share your story in the comments so others can learn from you and also start saying no.