This past year, I spent a lot of time interviewing for jobs. I hadn’t interviewed anywhere in years, so at first I found it difficult to navigate the process. But after getting through a few rounds of phone and in-person interviews, I was back in the game.
I felt even more comfortable once I realized I was being asked a lot of the same questions over and over; this made it easier to prepare for each interview. One question that I continued to get in various interviews was the widely dreaded one: “What is your biggest weakness?”
Earlier in my career, I used to make up the answer to this question, as most people tend to do. Certainly, I couldn’t walk into an interview and tell them I had a penchant for procrastination or that I wasn’t as detail-oriented as my cover letter suggested. Instead, I always came up with a seemingly negative trait that is actually a positive one.
Finally, this past year, I decided to stop beating around the bush and start getting real. For the first time, I gave an honest answer: I have trouble saying “No.”
My husband thought I was crazy for giving this response; he didn’t see how this could be a weakness in the workplace. Who wants an employee who says no?
But thinking about it more deeply, I realized that knowing when to say no is a valuable skill. It can help you to avoid getting overwhelmed and burning out. It can keep you from taking on too many of the administrative tasks that are important but rarely rewarded, causing you to miss out on the meaningful assignments that lead to the promotions and pay raises. It sends the message that your time is valuable and that you respect it as such, so others should, too. It helps you to keep your priorities in check -- and most of all, it’s pretty damn empowering.
Knowing when to say no is important - but it’s equally important to know how to say no. While it’s wise to say no to requests that are simply unmanageable, you must learn to do so in a way that’s not dismissive. If your boss asks you to take on a project for which you simply don’t have the bandwidth, calmly explain that you are working on a number of other projects and that you cannot commit to the new task without jeopardizing the quality of your work elsewhere. Follow up by asking if you can contribute to the project in a way that is less time consuming or ask if you should de-prioritize something else to make time for the new assignment.
Similarly, if your colleague is asking you for help and you aren’t able to pitch in, be sensitive about your response. You can simply say that while you would love to help, your plate is full and you think he or she might be better served by someone who can devote more time to the task.
However you choose to say no, make sure to be polite, respectful, and assertive. If you’re not yet in the habit, it might at first seem scary. But rest assured by remembering that preserving your time, talent, and skills will benefit you and everyone around you -- and your colleagues will respect you for responsibly taking control of what’s on your plate.
Natalia M. Marulanda is a former practicing attorney, currently working as a Women’s Initiative Manager at a law firm in New York City. She also runs The Girl Power Code, a blog that focuses on empowering women in the workplace.
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