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The power of ‘’no’’ at work… when you want to say yes

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Rosie Birchenough, Event Manager, Dentsu International

I’m a self-confessed people pleaser. It’s something I’m working on. My reaction to ‘’lunch?’’ ‘’drinks?’’, an 8:00am meeting request or another project to manage, would always instinctively have been yes. I like to be busy, I like to be supportive, and I like to challenge myself. But most of all, I find it hard to say no.

We are living in an ‘always on’ culture. A culture that has always been there, but one that’s been amplified throughout the pandemic: where the line between work and home is invisible, where stress levels determine how busy we are and where we’re responding to emails in our sleep. Earlier this year, Zoom reported over 3.3 trillion annual meeting minutes, and that is just one of the tech giants keeping us connected. The virtual working world is demanding more and more from us, and we’re battling to gain control.

Control comes in the form of boundaries. But is the B word just another buzzword? Or a basic human need? One thing the pandemic has taught me is the power that comes with saying no and setting clear boundaries in the workplace. I didn’t really get the true meaning of the word until quite recently. “I’m putting my boundaries in place” would be thrown around in conversations with friends at dinner, but it was only when I needed them the most that I truly understood the importance. Oprah Winfrey once said: “In order to thrive and be successful, you have to be able to set boundaries”, and (unsurprisingly, because it’s Oprah!) she’s right. 

Saying no demands respect. It demands the listener to listen and means that you will automatically be creating the firm boundaries that we need to succeed. There is no doubt that NO can be perceived with negativity. Neuroscience has confirmed that it’s far more difficult to digest than its positive counterpart, YES. No is a tough word, and our brains are tuned to react in a more intense and quicker way. ‘’This response has of course evolved over time, for a positive reason, to stay out of harm’s way’’ said John Cacioppo, Ph.d. who founded the University of Chicago Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

So, if you think about it, saying no has always been our friend, and there are many other benefits that come with it. Being a people pleaser means your agenda and goals are dictated by others. To say no is to make a clear choice. You are the decider, taking control of the situation, and the boost in energy and confidence that comes with that control will only lead to new opportunities.

But, how does this differ between genders? In a world where men are applauded for their assertiveness and presence in the workplace, women are still expected to be agreeable and compliant. Caitlyn Collins, a professor of sociology at Washington University who studies gender inequality at work and at home explains “Women have been socialised into understanding that what is most important is that they be perceived as likable and agreeable’’.

As a collective men and women are both experiencing new levels of stress and burnout at work as we all navigate the pandemic, and it has never been more important for us all to learn the power of no. But, women still have a lot more to contend with. Receiving lower pay than their male colleagues, fighting for representation in the boardroom and generally overcoming the stereotype of being lesser in the workplace, are just a few of the obstacles that add to a woman’s day to day in the workplace. 

Saying no is our ultimate superpower and we don’t use it enough. As a self-confessed people pleaser, I can confirm that learning the power of NO is one of the most important achievements I have made. Not only is it the one true tool to self care, it gives us the ability to stay afloat when work demands too much; and will let your colleagues, whether female, male, senior or junior, know that you’ve totally got this.