The art of saying “no” – a challenge for most women. We are brought up to please others, to take care of everyone – except ourselves. Saying “no” is nothing which is associated with a badass female boss who has everything in control – her job, her private life. “She can handle anything. I’m not worried about her.” That is why the piles on her desk become higher and higher, the hours at work longer and longer. While others go home to their well-deserved after-work hours, she is still hustling. When she finally comes home she takes care of the children and the household – that bad feeling that she is not trying hard enough always on her mind.
I used to be that person too. Whatever job I commit to, I want to do it well. Or, let’s say more than just well, it has to be perfect. I want people to look at a finished project and be happy about it. My work ethics are extremely high and I do not mind putting in more hours than others to make a project a success.
The problem is a simple one: in any team, there are free riders. Those who do almost nothing but sell the success as theirs. They immediately identify those who actually do the work and then conveniently disappear.
It took me a while to realise that saying “no” will neither sacrifice the quality of a project nor harm my overall career. When I started one of my first jobs as a part-time commercial manager next to my studies, I took over any tasks. Literally, anything. From Excel spreadsheets to tidying up the office, to making coffee. Yes! I really was that stupid, while the other part-time commercial manager – a guy – got his dedicated tasks, I did not. And the problem was that I accepted it. I was only 19 years old and very naive. I did not want to complain. One of my bosses – a woman – stepped up for me and said that cooking coffee and tidying up the place was not what I was hired for. If I had not had that boss, I would have probably kept accepting it, making the usual excuses that I have to “start somewhere and work myself up”.
But I learned from that and started to look after myself. Years later, I was in a team full of free riders who all left the work to one other colleague. This woman was extremely smart and hard-working. She worked crazy hours and always delivered amazing results. But the problem was that she did not boast about her work like the free riders. And she kept saying “yes” when they dumped their work on her.
When I joined that team, I immediately realised what was going on. And the free riders tried to play the same game with me. One of them conveniently fell asleep every single day at the same time – at 2.15 pm – at his desk. He stayed until 7 pm sharp and then produced a long sheet of over hours at the end of the month. I did not immediately rebel against them as I was new to the team. I observed the dynamics while being mindful about not letting them take advantage of me or my other colleague.
One day, we had an emergency meeting and we were all asked to quickly solve a problem within a few hours. I immediately went back to my desk and started working. The “sleeping free rider” calmly went for a coffee, then passed my desk and dropped a 200 page document. “I need this in half an hour,” he said with a smile. Mind you, he was not my boss, still he thought he could just do it. I looked up and said “No. I’m afraid, you have to do it yourself.” He was startled. His head turned red. Then he stormed out to my boss’s office and complained that I was not a team player. Right in the middle of the emergency, as if there was nothing more important to do, I had to go to my boss and defend why I did not take over his work. I stayed calm and explained that we all have to solve this problem together, that I am already working on multiple things and that it was simply not possible for me to do it. (I was strategic and did not talk badly about that free rider.) My boss understood, I went back to my desk and the free rider had to sacrifice his afternoon nap to actually do his job.
The reason I share this story is that in certain moments it is important to say “no”. If I had taken over his job, I would not have performed at my own. In the long-run, this would probably have impacted my performance assessment at the end of the year. I am not saying that you should not be a team player, on the contrary. But be strategic about which tasks and from whom you take them over. If it is somebody who supports you the same way, it is perfectly fine.
This Postcard should be a little reminder to take care of yourselves as well. We are currently facing a rollercoaster of events and a lot of uncertainty. Not all stressors are under our control, but we can take care of the ones which are. Reassess what gives you stress currently. Are you the one helping everyone else out while pushing your to-do list back? Good for you, being selfless. But you are neither doing yourself a favour nor the company, if you are to stressed to perform burn out. Assess if your colleague immediately needs your help and talk to them.
That also applies to your private life. If you do not feel that something is good for you, you do not have to go there. You do not want to go to your friend’s party because you need time for yourself, take the time and do not go. A real friend will prefer you to stay home instead of showing up and being in a bad or stressed mood.
I saw an interesting post on Instagram with the hashtag “NOvember”. It encouraged followers to actively say “no” this month. You need to look after yourselves – even if you think you do not. Take care of yourselves first, then everyone else. Try to forget about those old-fashioned expectations that women have to take care about everybody else first and put themselves last. It is OK to be a bit selfish sometimes. Just do not become a free rider. 🙂