Saying “No” to your Boss without Hurting your Career

by Joanie Connell

For most of us, it’s no on the handhard to say “no”—if not all of the time, at least in some situations. One such situation is when you think it might harm your career. Ironically, sometimes, not saying “no” might actually hurt your career more. Examples are: when you are being asked to do something illegal or immoral, or something that you will not succeed at. You might not succeed at a task because you are too busy to do it well or because you aren’t skilled enough to do it well. In either case, it will reflect badly on you when you fail.

When I tell people they need to be able to say ”no,” they often balk and say that they can’t say “no” to their boss. Then I say, “How about if you say ‘yes’ to your boss?” Their eyes light up when I tell them it’s possible to say “yes” and “no” at the same time. Try the models below.

  • “Yes. If I do this then I won’t be able to do that… Which do you think is more important?”
    • Boss: “Could you take on the budget proposal for the new product we’re developing?”
    • You: “Yes, absolutely. I’m currently working on the financial analysis of the old product though. If I take on the budget for the new product, I won’t be able to finish the analysis as quickly and I had originally estimated. Which do you think is more important to do first?”
  • “Yes. If I do it in that timeframe, however, it won’t be my best work. I could offer to do this instead… What do you think would be best?”
    • Boss: “Could you write up the 40-page report by tomorrow morning?”
    • You: “Yes, I’d be happy to. If I write 40 pages in one day, though, it won’t be polished. If I had till the end of the week, I’d have time to go over it a second time and proofread it. What do you think would be best?”
  • “Yes. Would it be okay to delegate that to …?”
    • Boss: “Could you manage the offsite planning?”
    • You: “Yes, I’d be happy to be responsible for it. Would it be okay to delegate the work to Marnie? She’s looking for more leadership opportunities and is good with logistics.”

These exact phrases may not fit with your style, but you get the idea. You accept the work with full disclosure of the sacrifice (not completing other work, not your best quality work, or not you actually doing the work) and give your boss the opportunity to decide what is more important. If your boss says, for example, that she doesn’t need your best quality on a 40-page report, just a rough draft, or maybe even an outline, then you’ve brought it down to a reasonable task in a short timeframe. If your boss says he needs it to be top quality and would rather wait, then you have turned it into a reasonable timeframe to complete the task.

Bosses don’t want their people to fail. It reflects badly on them too when you fail. They want the work done and done well and done on time. You need to speak up when you won’t be able to deliver. A positive way to do that is to help the boss find solutions, rather than raise obstacles. Bosses like solutions. And the bosses who don’t like to hear “no” like to be able to decide what is more important. If you give them that opportunity with the models above, then you will be able to keep your head above water too.

Empowering Millennials

 “Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.” ― Adrienne Rich

helping handStructured mentoring is the rage right now. Millennials love it! Not only do they love it, but they expect it and they need it—at least they think they need it. They’ve been programmed to think they need it from years of coaching and personal tutoring. They’ve been taught to believe they don’t have the power within themselves to get the answers. I don’t believe that’s true.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the workplace it’s that effective people take responsibility for their own development. They don’t wait around for the company to hand them a mentor and a plan. Effective people take action to get things done. They don’t wait around for someone to help them. That’s not to say that effective people don’t ask for help; they do. They seek help when they need it and find a way to keep moving forward when it’s not available. That’s because effective people have personal power.

powerHaving personal power means feeling confident in your abilities and knowing you can access the resources you need to accomplish what you want to. It means having a level of control over yourself and the world around you. It is about knowing what you can and cannot control. It is about thinking for yourself and being true to yourself. Personal power enables you to get things done.

Managers regularly complain to me that the new generation of workers needs too much “hand holding.” “They aren’t independent enough.” “They need directions and feedback at every step of the way.” How do we empower the Millennials to be able to fend for themselves? Mentoring is a good thing. I don’t knock that. But we need to ask ourselves if we are truly empowering Millennials by setting up so many structured mentoring programs for them. Could we, in fact, be disempowering them in the process? Could we be “enabling” them to remain helpless and dependent on others? By cowing to their mentoring demands, aren’t we continuing to send them the message that they can’t do it on their own?

As a consultant, one of the first things that we are taught is what the client needs is often not what the client asks for. For example, a client might call up asking for a training program for their team. Upon further examination, we might find out that it’s really the leader who needs training on how to lead the team.

Millennials ask for mentoring. They also ask to have their parents come on their job interviews. Companies are meeting these demands by providing what is asked for. But these respobird flyingnses don’t address the root of the issue: Millennials need to become more independent and self-empowered (and their parents need to back off). If we’re going to mentor young people to be effective in the workplace, that’s the message we need to send.

Rearing Resilience

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

–Frederick Douglass

1st place ribbonI went to a youth music competition this weekend.  There were 12 musicians in the age category I watched.  They varied a great deal in their ability.  After an hour of performances, the judges announced the winners.  There were 2 First Place winners, 4 Second Place winners and 6 Third Place winners.  Everyone won.  I overheard one of the Third Place winners asking her parents if Third Place was really Last Place.  The parents looked at her, not knowing what to say as she took the medal off her chest and put it away.  She wasn’t fooled.

crying babyThere is a movement toward sparing the feelings of children when they lose, make a mistake, fail, or simply aren’t the best at something.  We raise our children in a culture where “everyone’s a winner.”  However, when they grow up and find out that only very few people get into the best colleges and very few end up in their dream jobs right out of school, they are dumbfounded and caught off guard, and they crumple in defeat.  We aren’t preparing our children to survive in a world where everyone really isn’t a winner.

Resilience is probably the most important quality for success at work and life. Being able to stay strong, even in the worst of times, is what leads to success. It is the rare individual who goes through life without adversity. In fact, it would be surprising if there were any such people. Some people face greater adversity than others and have to be strong to get through it. For example, think of cancer survivors, kids who have escaped from neighborhood gangs, Holocaust survivors, or the Lost Boys of Sudan. How did they endure? What kept them going? It was inner strength and optimism. They never gave up.

Hopefully, none of us will have to face such severe adversity, but it is important to be able to get through what adversity we do encounter. How do we develop the inner strength to stay strong? We train for it just like we do for everything else. We start out small with low levels of adversity, such as not getting the piece of candy we want, working out our differences with our school friends, and learning from a failing grade that we have to study for tests. We move onto bigger problems to get through, such as handling the pain of breaking an arm or getting stitches, denting the car and having to pay for it ourselves, and working through our first heartbreak. Then we move onto even bigger things, such as learning to live with a difficult roommate, turning down an evening out with friends to save for the rent, and sticking it out at a miserable summer job. These experiences prepare us for the critical ones that require us to draw from our strength to get through trying circumstances and forge optimistically ahead.

Successful people are resilient.

Why Is Pregnancy a Women’s Problem?

baby at laptopBy Joanie Connell

Babies are a part of life. We were all babies once. Most of us will have babies. And, whether or not we do, we need babies to continue our society. So, why is it that the burden of having babies has landed completely on women?

The recent HBR discussion on whether women are obligated to tell potential employers that they are pregnant when they interview is a great example of how women are blamed for having babies. The conundrum is: tell the potential employer and don’t get hired or don’t tell the potential employer and be called a liar. It’s a lose-lose situation for pregnant women looking for work.

Are men liars if they don’t tell their potential employers that they have medical conditions that might affect their work? It’s interesting that pregnancy is considered a medical condition that needs to be disclosed, even though people have fought hard to have the right to privacy over their medical issues. The disability act requires employers to find a way to deal with a disability, but why don’t employers have the same obligation to find a way to deal with pregnancy? Isn’t that gender biased?

In an ideal society, we’d all be honest with each other and give each other warning when things were about to change. But this is not an ideal society. Employers don’t do it and neither do employees. Why are women held to a higher standard?

More to the point, however, is that we all have to bear the cost of having babies and we all get to reap the benefits of having babies too. We think so often about how people who don’t have babies are saddled with the cost of other people (especially women) having babies. But, could it actually be the other way around? It could be argued that people who don’t have babies are free riders of a sort.

The problem with the blame game is that it blocks productivity. We’ve seen this on a large scale, for example, when Congress disagrees on the budget and when presidents are investigated. Our government comes to a standstill. People get so rooted into a position that they bring everyone down disagreeing. They’re fighting for win-lose but everyone loses.

Pregnant womanWe’re asking the wrong questions about pregnancy at work. We shouldn’t be thinking at the granular level of what he said/she said or if he/she should hire this person or that. The reason why women are losing out is that employers keep thinking at the level of “would this person be better for me over the next 3 months” rather than what is the best solution for the company over the long-term? This is a pennywise, pound foolish approach. Women are losing wages and opportunity and companies are losing access to a huge portion of the productive workforce.

Let’s turn pregnancy into a win-win proposition by asking ourselves to challenge our current assumptions and think in new and creative ways. Wouldn’t we all be more productive if we started implementing solutions rather than blaming and harping on problems of pregnancy at work—if we found ways to leverage the productivity of pregnant women and mothers, rather than write them off as being less worthy? Wouldn’t we all be better off if we found a way to collectively bring in the next generation of leaders and employees while supporting the current leaders and employees? Think of how much more we could get done!

Pregnancy is not a women’s problem. It is a part of life that can drain or regenerate our society, depending on how we handle it.

Why Have Good Character?

cheatBy Joanie Connell

One evening several years back, my husband, daughter and I were sitting around the kitchen table after dinner. My husband got up and went into the pantry and shut the door behind him. I heard a bunch of rustling noises, like plastic bags being handled. I couldn’t for the life of me think of why my husband would go into the pantry and shut the door, and what he could possibly be doing in there. Then all of a sudden I remembered that I had hidden all of the Halloween candy in there! He was eating it! What do you think I did? I covered for him in front of my daughter then I took a turn!

Yes, I still do feel guilty about it, 8 years later. It just doesn’t seem right to tell my daughter that she can’t eat candy but I can. But how many of us do this? How many parents hold their children to different standards than they hold themselves? It occurs in various forms.

  • The children should get all A’s even though the parents didn’t.
  • The children should cross at the crosswalk, even though the parents don’t.
  • The children should never lie, even though the parents do.
  • The children should not drink alcohol before the legal age, even though the parents did.
  • The children should perform community service, but the parents don’t.

Children learn character from their parents. They catch us in a lie. They ask why it is okay to tell Grandma that her cake was delicious even though we threw it away. They hear us yelling at other drivers from the car. They see whether we return the shopping cart, whether we come to a full stop at the intersection, whether we download music from iTunes or someone else’s computer.

But we shouldn’t just have good character for our kids. We should have it for ourselves first and foremost. And if we don’t have good character for ourselves or our kids, we should have it because society needs people of character for it to succeed. If we all let ourselves go, looking out for no one but ourselves, cheating the rules, and ignoring requests, we will all lose. Humans are social beings; we need each other to survive. Why not treat each other well in the process?