At the recent Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit, it was revealed that Steve Jobs used to ask Jony Ive the same question every day: ‘How many times did you say no today?’
So let’s talk about saying “no” – why is it important, and how do you say it without becoming the most hated person in the office.
“The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes”.
– Peter Drucker
The Days of “Yes”
A lot of value placed on “yes” in the workplace these days. Indeed, I was no exception.
I was once part of a design-team-of-1, and being the only designer in a large organisation brought a new challenge that I didn’t foresee : that any time someone wanted a PDF formatted, or a facebook graphic designed, I was the person.
At the beginning, I didn’t mind this at all. Happy to help. As the months wore on, I was increasingly brought away from the high-value projects I was hired to work on. I became a stressed-out scatterbrain, multitasking my way into staying late into the evenings. After a while, I felt like my time was not respected in the office, and that I was expected to work on peripheral tasks that were appropriate for a junior designer. This was not only harmful for my career, but the biggest problem is that I wasn’t contributing anything of value to the company I worked for.
This lesson has, obviously, stuck with me.
So How Do You Say “No”?
There are a few techniques I’ve picked up on how to let someone down without becoming hated.
1. The Noticeboard Strategy
This was actually suggested to me by my husband, who had a similar experience being the only graphic designer in his company.
If you’re busy, show it.
Write down a list of all of the ongoing projects you have, and have this list visible on your desk. When someone approaches you with a small task, you can show them the list of things you have to do that day. If it’s not important enough to disrupt your workload, any normal person will not want to make your day more stressful.
2. Yes to the Person, No to the Task
It’s possible to let the request down gently by offering to do it at a less busy time. You could use this script –
“I’m sorry, but <someone senior> has asked me to focus on <a high value task> this week. Can we sit down next Tuesday and look at this together?”
3. Explore Other Options
If you are being ask to supply something that might overlap with another area, explore that as a possibility. For example, if you are being asked for the current conversion rate or some other analytical data, it may be possible to find that data in a marketing report.
Alternatively, you could find someone with a lighter workload to show them how to do the task that is being requested of you.
4. Recruit and Outsource
If this is an on-going issue, the only solution might be to look at recruiting an intern, a junior designer or outsourcing the work to an agency to take over the tasks. In the case of an internship or a junior employee, it would be giving them the experience they need, and would also free up your time to work on the higher value tasks.
Outsourcing to an agency works really well if your organisation is split into separate departments with separate budges. Any design work should really come out of the budget of the department who requests it.
Of course it’s possible to say ‘yes’ to the occasional request, but every now and again you need to remember why it was that you were hired in the first place. Which of your tasks contribute the most value back to your organisation? If you’re not being supported by your team lead, for example your boss doesn’t have a problem with you spending your time doing the work of a junior designer, it might be time to plan an exit strategy.
You’re more valuable to your company when you focus important tasks, so be aware that you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to every request that comes your way.