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How to say no at work ... and still get ahead

It's easier than many women might think.

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Can you say NO at work to extra tasks without jeopardizing your job or sandbagging your career? When you're repeatedly given assignments outside your job description, do you lie awake at night trying to figure out how to set limits? If your boss asks you to stay overtime when you have friends coming to dinner, do you feel too anxious to say that you have a prior commitment? Do you believe that the only way to succeed at work is to say yes to whatever you're asked to do?

Many women have difficulty saying no at work, because we worry about the fallout. We say yes more often than we'd like for so many reasons: to preserve relationships, to show commitment, to be team players, to demonstrate competence, to be liked, and to be kind. In a time-limited situation, the immediate or anticipated benefits of acquiescing may be worth a sacrifice. But repeatedly backing away from setting self-protective limits is a recipe for resentment and burnout.

It takes a unique mixture of decisiveness and flexibility to fit the demands of our workplace responsibilities. But there are tools to make this part of your job easier than you might think.

I interviewed more than 100 successful women leaders – from CEOs to celebrities, college presidents, police chiefs, and public officials – to find out how they learned to say no. Many of them started out as "yes women" before mastering the art of no.

For the most part, these women developed their own techniques of saying no – favoring a collaborative over a hierarchical style in problem solving and decisionmaking. Because relationships are important to them, they try to be respectful even as they set limits. Many take the time to explain the reasons for their nos and to offer helpful suggestions or alternatives when they decide to refuse a request. Bottom line – they aim to keep the connections that count.


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