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Yes: The bad 3-letter word

Posted on September 27, 2023
Image is of the word Yes filled with colorful Nos.

The word “Yes” – on the surface – is a good word. A collaborative word. However, using the word unchecked, it can be a bad word. The word “No,” on the other hand, carries with it power and the ability to stabilize. When we say no to something, we are taking control of our time, and we ensure we do not get overloaded and overwhelmed.

So, why is it so hard to say no and so easy to say yes? Well, the honest truth is that women are far more likely to say yes versus their male counterparts, especially for tasks and projects that have little career benefit. In a Harvard Business Review study, they found “women volunteer for these “non-promotable” tasks more than men; that women are more frequently asked to take such tasks on; and that when asked, they are more likely to say yes.” The key word in their finding is “non-promotable tasks.” So, why do we say yes more often? In reviewing a slew of articles from Forbes, HBR, and others, there are three common reasons:

  1. Women often suffer from imposter syndrome and thus say yes, to continually try and prove their worth.
  2. Women want to be seen as a team player 3) Women like these tasks.

Women are often asked, more than their male counterparts, to take on tasks that are not going to lead to a promotion. According to Forbes, women take on 200 hours of extra work each year. Providing women take 2 weeks vacation each year, that amounts to 4 extra hours each week, or as Forbes put it, “that adds up to an extra month of labor annually.” This is a shocking number and there is more to it than the two common reasons listed above. Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart take a deeper dive in their book The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work. Over the course of a decade, they conducted extensive research into why women take on the non-promotable tasks, aka NPTs. Their research debunked the “common” reasons and found one clear one – “we expect women to say yes to NPTs, so we ask them first. Our expectations come from shared stereotypes of women as ‘helpers.’” They go one to note that women then say yes because they want to “negative repercussions.”

The authors of The No Club go one to provide three ways to say, “No.”

  1. Provide and explanation for saying no – be clear and succinct in the explanation to help the person asking to understand why you can’t take on this task or project.
  2. Solve the problem – if possible, provide the solution while saying no, in other words help the person asking to find an alternative solution. However, I want to add be careful not to step into the role as problem solver for other people’s dilemmas if they are outside of your scope or will not play a role in a promotion or recognition.
  3. Say yes while saying no – essentially, the goal is to still say no, at least to elements of the ask. Can the ask be spread out to others as well?

Both men and women may need to even say no to promotable tasks because there are just not enough hours in the week or month? There comes a point when there is too much on one’s plate that nothing can be done effectively or efficiently. This is the time to talk with your manager, help them understand the competing priorities and ask them to help you prioritize your many tasks and projects. There is one other response I would like to add and that is the “Yes, but not now.” I would use this for the promotable asks you know will benefit you, but currently there is not the time for you to focus on it. You can explain that you will be happy to take on this new shiny project in a month once you have finished up this other project.

So, as women (and this applies to men as well), the word yes is not always your friend. It can be your enemy. Learn to use the word no in a respectful and firm manner to protect your time and your career trajectory. We should not take on more and more tasks that get us nothing in return other than a few thank yous. Sure, we all have aspects of our job we don’t love or that feel mundane, but taking on additional tasks and projects that provide no long-term benefit can leave you in the slow career lane. And taking on additional tasks and projects when you already have too many things to juggle, will likely mean sacrificing quality, which can have a negative impact on your career growth. Saying “no” will allow you to focus and prioritize to keep your eye on the prize – your career growth.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Associate Dean, Graduate College
Associate Teaching Professor, Dept. of Communication, College of Arts & Sciences
Posted in professional-development-career-tips