You Are Allowed To Say 'No'
It is okay to say ‘No’.
It is okay to decline meeting requests. Even from your manager. Even from your client!
When you say no, you do not disrespect them. You simply respect your commitments over theirs. You, in fact, respect your stakeholders by saying no, by being transparent to them. You are being honest by not making any false promises.
When you say no, you do not necessarily decline to assist them. You only choose to prioritise your other commitments. It is straightforward as that.
Then why is it so tough to practice?
In my colourful career so far, I have had an opportunity to work with colleagues and clients from most parts of the world. Some simply perceive a ‘No’ as a confirmation, whereas others take it as a rejection - an insult, especially when coming from someone lower in the hierarchy. It may be cultural. However, in my opinion, the biggest reason is our own misconstrued notion that saying no is not an option. Ironically, our ambitious attempt to succeed professionally in the early phase of the career also lays a foundation for a lifelong of professional (and personal) stress. Our potential success needs to constantly overcompensate the stress that is its own byproduct.
What we do not realise is that this culture of unconditional obeyance causes great damage, impairing not just the physical and mental health, but also the very culture.
I too was a victim to this school of thought, that by saying no I was breaking my employer’s trust. I was doing injustice to my client who literally paid for my salary. Nothing they asked for was too much. Even if it affected my health. ‘Customer is our God’ after all. While I sincerely subscribed to that belief (and still do), I used to forget that I was only a human being. I had to gather the courage to break away from such self-imposed expectations and learn to be more transparent - set realistic expectations with my stakeholders, and with myself, to commit positively, and decline reasonably. But it doesn't always end happily and doesn't even end for many people.
It is, in fact, a vicious cycle. When we expect our subordinates to honour our unreasonable demands, they too grow to set similar expectations when they grow up the professional ladder. And the legacy continues.
What can we do?
It starts and ends with us. Those in any capacity of people management or in a position of authority must break the chain.
Let’s stop encouraging such unreasonable behaviour and setting unrealistic expectations, and start cultivating the culture of transparency. Let’s discourage colleagues from working extended hours, and support them in managing their time and deliverables better. Instead of lashing out at someone for declining our requests, let’s try to understand their reasons better. Let’s manage our own deliverables more effectively and set an example for others.
In these uncertain and languishing times, identifying and addressing work-related mental health issues have become even more important. Let’s ensure everybody can be themselves at work, even if it means disagreeing with their superiors.