Why We Need To Learn How To Say No

Written by Lucie Robathan on August 8, 2017

When our inboxes, to-do lists, and brains are full to the brim, and we feel pulled in all directions, sometimes the most powerful weapon in our arsenal is the humble post-it note.

A sage piece of advice or an inspiring message stuck on the corner of your computer screen is more than just decorative: it can serve as a reminder of why you work, what matters most, and where you want yourself and your organization to be heading. One career mantra can help cut through all the tasks, anxieties and routines to keep you focused and motivated, and to keep your overarching purpose and principles always in sight.

We posed the question to the community, “Is there one piece of advice you received in your career that is resonating the most with you at the moment?”, interested in whether the individual reminders people give themselves speak to any broader ambitions, beliefs, and commitments within the association space at large. What messages have people inscribed on post-it notes to catch their attention every day? And what could we learn about our industry from these personal insights?

The responses took an interesting turn:

“Know when to say no. While it feels nice to say yes to everything and to accomplish a lot, if you don’t rest and recharge regularly, you’ll find that work takes more than just your time.” - Luke Zimmer, Online Community Engagement Specialist, American Staffing Association

While sometimes difficult, you need to say ‘no’.” - Elizabeth George, CMM, Director of Membership Development and Engagement, Shop! Association

The same theme kept appearing. We want to do everything, to be everything, and to please everyone, but spreading ourselves too thin has consequences beyond just a glutted schedule. We can’t hope to offer ourselves meaningfully to others, or to carry through on our promises, if we are over-stretched.

We are all challenged by the limits of our time; we are always looking to save time, to maximize time, and desperate for more hours in the day. But in order to save time, to maximize time, and to use the hours we have more effectively, we need to be honest and realistic about what “no”s this may entail:

Time is always a problem, but no one talks about what you have to give up in order to save it: what to give up, and how to give it up.” - Emery Wolfe, Technology and Multimedia Specialist, Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association

If we could learn how best to say “no” in the face of time constraints, and discuss honestly what tasks, requests, or routines could be eliminated for more effective time management, the issue of time would become, perhaps, less overwhelming.

Equally, if we are not establishing boundaries and doing the difficult work of saying “no”, we are in danger of stifling productivity – or of watching a project slide in an unwanted direction. To say “no” to one thing means, simultaneously, committing yourself more deeply to the things you’ve said “yes” to. Decision making requires both yeses and noes, and sometimes to getting things done, and being content with the results, means knowing when to draw the line.

There could, in fact, be positive and creative consequences to drawing the line:

“Do your best with what you have right here.” - Doreen Ashton Wagner, Organizational Catalyst, Greenfield Services

Doreen’s quote seems to suggest that there is a way in which we need to say “no” to ourselves, too. At some point we need to accept the resources we have, the context we’re in, and the strengths we have, and use these to produce our best work. There might always be one more thing you want – more budget, more time, more answers – but saying “no” to yourself in this respect clears space for innovation and action.

What does this mean for our associations?

These pieces of advice carry over in an interesting way to our organizations as a whole. Elizabeth George’s advice, quoted above, actually continued: “…this can be especially critical when speaking with a prospective member and realizing that your own association is not the right fit for them.”

Just as there is an association for everything, we cannot hope to be everything to everyone. Associations exist for their members, and are thus only as successful as they are right for their members’ needs and wants. Saying “no” is in fact remaining true to the vision and scope of your organization, and setting expectations that will allow you to deliver the most worthwhile and valuable experience to your membership base.

Is there a piece of career advice most empowering you or your team? Please do comment below with your own pearls of wisdom!

This article is an exercise in crowdsourcing ideas. We want to bring together people who have great insights, and people who would benefit hugely from hearing them. Look out for the next crowdsourcing query in your weekly subscriber email!