“Yes” Or “No”?

Should Women Try To Be Less Agreeable At Work?

Bailey says uh-uh

One of the many mistakes I made as a 22- and 23-year-old in the workforce was not being a “yes” person. Or so I told myself when I tried to figure out what had gone wrong. I was insufficiently positive; I approached certain new situations with wariness or caution rather than with the assumption that even if I didn’t know how I would do something, or it wasn’t in my job description, I would, and should, figure it out.

In short, I was not sunny with a side of smiles, and I think it hurt me.

At later jobs, I attempted to correct for that. Although I’ll never be, you know, Sandra Dee, I at least understood that managers like employees who are positive and accommodating rather than the opposite. At one later job in particular, I divined that the CEO both liked to fire people and hated to hear the word “no,” and it became my task to figure out, sometimes on a daily basis, how to seem like I was on her side while also subtly, for the sake of the company, steering her away from her ideas.

I thought of it a bit like improv comedy: the rule I gave myself was, “Say ‘Yes, and ….’” No matter how outlandish or out-of-sync her suggestions, my job was to work with her, rather than against her.

Yes, it was emotionally taxing. It was also good preparation for parenthood because, as it turns out, toddlers hate hearing “No” too.

Lately, though, there’s been a slew of really interesting thought-pieces about the power of saying “No,” especially for women. Lena Dunham wrote one such cri de couer for LENNY, which has been reprinted in the Huffington Post:

A well-timed yes can expand our world in beautiful and unexpected ways. But I am writing now to espouse the power of another simple word: no. …

I am in YES recovery. Like many humans, many women, I am a people pleaser. Can I be there at noon? Sure can! Will I bring three hundred bucks in foreign currency? Absolutely! Will I also promise to help a friend move, be late meeting them because I also agreed to babysit another friend’s sick rabbit, then disappoint everyone in the process? I sure will!

“No” is a word that could have served me well many times, but I didn’t ever feel I had the right to use it.

And specifically as to how it relates to our jobs:

Work is, organically, a place of yes. … at work it became my mission to answer every email no matter the hour, agree to every added task, finish the day off by reading a link sent by a colleague rather than a book for pleasure. Even as a boss, I often refused to delegate, instead taking on added jobs for my employees in hopes that they’d be impressed by just how on the ball I was. If there was an extra-curricular writing assignment, I took it.

If there was a chance to run like a maniac from work to a panel, toilet paper trailing from my heel, tea stains on my blouse, I was doing that too. And for awhile, it worked like a charm. A compliment like “you’re the fastest email-er I know,” or “how do you do so much at once?” was better than a romantic sweet nothing to me. It fulfilled my desire to be seen as unsinkable, reliable. And in the deepest place, lovable.

But we can only pull off a high wire act for so long before gravity does its job.

To Dunham, saying “No” — or, more specifically, setting limits — has become an important act of self-care, even in the workplace. Be polite about saying something can’t be done, absolutely! But be firm, too.

Ann Friedman agrees and adds that the “No woman,” in many organizations, is an important corollary to the “Yes man.” She’s the skeptic / wet blanket who says, “Hang on, let’s check the budget” before agreeing to exciting but expensive new ideas.

Even when our job description doesn’t specify that it’s our responsibility to rein in our colleagues, it just tends to happen. A friend who works as a consultant has observed that men “are never the one taking notes! They are never the ones writing out the after-meeting ‘action items’ list.” (Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself acting as de facto secretary for male colleagues who are no higher on the org chart than you are.) “Whoever is actually doing the documenting ends up needing to own the fact that no one agreed on a motherfucking thing. If you think your role in a meeting is just to drop your glorious magic genius and then peace out, it’s easy to never have to say no.”

Often, women get a shot at leadership precisely because the company has been ruined by self-styled geniuses and is now in desperate need of a few incidents of no. Paula Schneider assumed the CEO role at American Apparel a year ago, and she’s still cleaning up Dov Charney’s messes.

As sage as Friedman and Dunham both are in these pieces, they are also well-established in their fields. Friedman’s beloved example of a “No woman,” Dana Scully, is, too. So are various others, like Dr. Bailey of “Grey’s Anatomy.” It’s worth considering whether any of those accomplished individuals have climbed as high as they did if they began on a “No” continuum instead of a “Yes” one.

Maybe the more measured answer is that all of us, and particularly women, can become more skeptical and restrained at work as we accumulate more responsibility and better reputations there. When you’re starting out, we may not want, or feel able, to take the risk of saying, “No” — because it is a risk, frankly. It puts us in danger of appearing unlikeable, or full of ourselves, or something other than a team player.

Maybe being able to say “No” even half as much as we may want to is a perk of advancing in our careers. Something to look forward to.

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