If you’re like me, when someone starts talking about a new project, you get excited and might want to get involved. This is a great quality, which has served me well both personally and professionally, and something that I never want to lose.
Unfortunately, this tendency can have some unexpected side effects, like overextending yourself. About five and a half years ago, I had put entirely too much on my plate at work and it was really difficult to deal with.
One of the contributing factors was that I worried that if I said no to a project, I felt like the person asking (usually my boss or someone senior to me in the organization) might think I declined because I lacked the skill or ability to do the work. In other words, I was worried they might think I was incompetent.
In hindsight the exact opposite was true.
Getting stuff done (the important stuff) means something else probably won’t happen
How many times have you found yourself saying something like:
- There aren’t enough hours in the day…
- I wish I had time to learn that…
- If only I could find the time to…
Nobody wants to be in that kind of situation because it means that there’s something you really want to be doing, but you can’t. I focus a lot of effort on using my time on the things that are most important. After all, there are only 24 hours in a day (and only 168 hours in a week).
I can hear you saying “OK, sure Matt, only spend time on what’s important. But that’s easier said than done. Especially when my boss might think I’m not carrying my load if I can’t take on this new project or task.”
That’s a fair point, however, test my logic in the following scenarios.
Which situation actually makes you look incompetent?
Let’s consider two different people, Mark and Sara, who are each asked by their boss to help out with a project.
- Mark says yes to everything. He knows he is capable and wants to prove that to his boss. He was already overloaded with projects, so what’s one more project in the queue. He misses commitments because he has too many. People think he must be competent because he said he’ll do everything, but proves to be incompetent because he’s not delivering
- Sara often says yes, but also sometimes says no. She is capable but wants to make sure she can focus and follow through. She delivers on commitments because she’s not getting crossed up in too many things. People might think she is incompetent because she said no, but her track record of getting stuff done proves otherwise.
Who do you think looks incompetent, Mark or Sara?
Whether you say yes or no, there’s always a risk that someone might think that you’re incapable or even incompetent. Let them think whatever they want to but prove yourself and your personal brand by meeting the commitments you make. Your track record is an objective scorecard that you can reference back to.
Careful! I’m not suggesting that “no” is a get out of jail free card
Quite the contrary.
Doing work. Doing good work. Taking on projects that are new and challenging, or that will take learning on your part. These are all part of growing your career. Saying no, and especially saying no “the wrong way” can make you seem difficult to work with or unwilling to cooperate. This is potentially dangerous territory to wander into.
I say this because there’s a temptation when you’re learning to say no to misuse this developing skill. It may not even be a conscious thing. It’s an easy trap–in fact, it’s natural. If you’ve ever talked with a two-year-old who learned to use the word no, you know how they tend to go overboard.
What I am saying is that saying no in the right situations will help make sure you’re able to focus on getting stuff done. In the long run, this will lead to people seeing your competence because you do the stuff you say you’re going to do and they also don’t mistakenly assume you’re going to do everything that comes your way.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve actually been quite guilty of saying yes to too many things. I rather enjoy the challenge of completing a lot of stuff that I’ve committed to. However, I’ve seen the dark side that can include late nights, exhaustion, and stress that doesn’t need to be there. In those times I realized how much additional risk of seeming incompetent came because I committed to a project that I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on.
I’ve worked hard to develop the skill of managing this particular risk and I highly encourage you to do the same. One of the first places I recommend starting is in situations like the ones above, where you’re saying yes for the wrong reasons.
Do you agree that saying no can prove your competence? Let me know in the comments below.