Are you the office doormat? Learn the art of saying no

Do your career a favour in 2018 – high time you stopped being a people pleaser

If you’re a dab hand at saying no to your boss and office colleagues, read no further. If, on the other hand, you find it hard to refuse, and end up constantly stressed out with too much to do, then it’s time to break the pattern.

Refusing a request from someone senior is not easy, but always being the yes-person brings you perilously close to becoming the office doormat. There are superiors and colleagues who will see constant willingness to please as a weakness and will take full advantage of it – to your detriment.

The second compelling reason for becoming more discriminating is to protect your reputation. If you keep taking on too much and fail to deliver, it may affect your career. People are generally better at remembering the one thing you didn’t do rather than the many things you did.

As small children, we are adept at refusing – look no further than the emphatic stream of “nos” that flows from the mouths of most two- and three-year-olds. However, we lose the ability to express uninhibited negativity as we get older and quickly realise that the world generally likes people-pleasers. Where the wheels come off for adults is when the over-riding wish to please becomes dysfunctional.


"It is interesting to think about how we become people-pleasers. More often than not it's a characteristic that goes back a long time," says Annette Clancy,   assistant professor of organisational behaviour in UCD College of Business's department of management. "We learn over time that being helpful, pleasing, attentive and reliable brings rewards. Our sense of accomplishment and achievement becomes tied to the external validation we receive from others.

“If other people aren’t giving me that feedback then I tell myself that I have to do ‘more’ and ‘better’ in order to secure more of that external attention. People-pleasers have no boundaries and see themselves as only existing in the service of other people.”

Accept ambivalence

Clancy says we need to recognise that our self-worth is not tied to other people. “It’s perfectly normal to be ambivalent about others and it’s equally normal for them to feel ambivalent about you. It’s not possible to be positive/helpful all of the time,” she says.

“In order to stop being a people-pleaser, we have to address the anxiety that pleasing assuages. For many people-pleasers, the idea of stopping being a pleaser raises enormous anxiety and, at its core, that anxiety relates to our very sense of worth. Will I have any function or worth if I am not externally validated?”

The first time you decline a request will be the most difficult so prepare for it. The aim is to keep the interaction factual and neutral in pitch and to avoid letting emotion creep in.

“Briefly outline the extent of your workload and why the task is not doable unless something else can wait or can be delegated to someone else. Once you have stated your position, don’t cave. There are always those who will exploit any sign of guilt.

“Alternatively, if you still want to look willing and avoid being dubbed ‘not a team player’, agree to the task but ask for back-up pointing out that any further dilution of your time will mean that nothing gets done properly. Saying no sets boundaries and with boundaries comes respect.

“If you want to stop pleasing and start progressing, you must address the anxiety that goes with it,” Clancy says. “Put yourself first and ask ‘Why am I doing this?’

“There’s nothing wrong with being helpful, but it’s not always appropriate. Practise saying no. Imagine a number of scenarios where you would normally jump in to say yes and then practise doing the opposite. Observe how this makes you feel and, rather than squashing the feeling down, stick with it and try to understand what it’s telling you.

“If you’re constantly being asked to take on extra tasks then it may be something about how you are perceived and time for some coaching or mentoring to help change your behaviour or improve your self-esteem.”

Assertiveness training

Mary Harrison is the cofounder of training and business support company Optimum, and one of the services it provides is assertiveness training.

“We work on assertiveness with both individuals and organisations and the content is firmly grounded in creating behavioural change in personal and business interactions,” she says.

“Key things to remember when learning to say no is that you are turning down the request, not the person. You also need to decide what is negotiable and not negotiable and stick to your decision. You need to be respected rather than liked and your approach should be firm and not hesitant. This takes practice as it is not what you say, it is how you say it.”

Harrison says one-to-one coaching can also help change the legacy patterns that are now working against you.

“Coaching can support and challenge the individual to identify what’s sitting at the heart of their behaviour. Ultimately, this is empowering and helps the individual to elicit their own solution. The coaching environment also lends itself to exploring new ways of thinking and approaching challenges.

“Pushing back in the workplace and developing the art of saying no can be very emotive. Coaching can help increase confidence and resilience.”