Lessons I Learned on Wall Street – Part 3: Learn When to Say No

One of my jobs on Wall Street was ensuring my firm’s compliance with equal opportunity laws, and it was a big job. The Equal Opportunity Commission was targeting the finance industry big time. It seemed like every time we turned around another one of our competitors was being audited. We were no exception, so we had to be on our toes.

Being on our toes meant that I had to learn the equal opportunity rules. It also meant that I enforced the rules, which meant that I had to learn when to say no. It was a big job because I was the ultimate yes or no for many hiring decisions. Of course, I needed support from our Director of HR, but even she came to me to find out what was okay and what wasn’t. As long as I could convince her I was right, I was the final authority.

On occasion, a very senior executive would unknowing try to send through a candidate who did not meet the qualifications for the job, and I was the one who had to call them and explain the situation.  We couldn’t hire this candidate above all the rest, or we’d be breaking the law.

“Before you got here, no one ever said no to them,” my co-worker told me. “What?! Are you serious?” I asked. I was in total disbelief. We worked at a world-renowned financial institution. How was it possible that no one had ever done that before?

To be honest, I do get it.  I’m a person who’s generally okay with saying no to people when needed, but saying no to the CEO or the head of a business line…that’s a different story. People in positions of power – the people no one ever says no to – those people don’t like taking no for an answer. I had to make sure I had good rationale behind my decisions. I had to know when we could bend the rules, and when we could get to yes using a different route than usual. I had to reserve no for the times it was really necessary so that I could establish good credibility and have my decisions respected. And when I said no, it had to be the final answer.

When I was able to say no successfully to the powers-that-be, it really empowered me and I learned a valuable lesson.

Lesson #3 – Learn when to say no.

No is an important word to keep in your vocabulary. It helps you establish healthy boundaries in your personal and professional life. To be a healthy person, you need to learn to say no to friends and family, on occasion, in order to maintain your own health and sanity. The same is true of you as an employee. In order to garner respect in the workplace, to establish clear boundaries for how you are willing to be treated, and to maintain your health as an employee, you need to learn to say no.

For some of you, this will be a very difficult thing. Many people struggle with saying no in their personal lives and that pattern carries over into their careers. If you work in a busy or difficult industry this can create a very unhealthy, busy, workaholic lifestyle. Been there. Done that. What I learned is that people will continue to ask more and more of you until you show them where your limits are. It can go a long way if you say something as simple as, “I’d love to help you, but I don’t have time to do that today. I can work on it first thing in the morning.” It sounds lot nicer than no, but that’s still a no. It still says, “I can’t do everything today, but I will get the work done when I can.”

One of the best rules I learned from my boss was to under-promise and over-deliver. When it doubt, push your deadline out. If you think that you can work really hard and finish a project in one day, build in a buffer. Tell the person you’ll have it finished in two or three days. That way if unexpected issues come up you can still finish on time. You save yourself some stress and, if all goes well, you can impress people by delivering your completed work early.

There may be a few of you out there who don’t have a problem with saying no. In fact, you love to do it. No, I can’t do that. No, I don’t have time. No, I just don’t like you so I’m not going to help you. It’s also important for you to learn when to say no. No can’t always be your answer. I’ve learned from watching people who say no too often that it’s usually a sign of one of two problems: 1) they aren’t actually capable of doing their job to the appropriate standard, or 2) they’ve developed a habit for being a no person.  Either way, the result is the same.  Their co-workers end up not wanting to work with them.

I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum and neither one is good for your career. If you find you say no too often, do yourself a favor:  take a good look at your career and see if it’s time to try something new. I had a co-worker who probably said no to people 50% of the time. She had trouble getting the opportunities she wanted and ultimately self-selected out of the organization. When they were trying to hire her replacement, people kept saying that the problem was that she was not very “user friendly.” That was ultimately why she was denied the opportunities she wanted and why she had to move elsewhere to further her career. Lesson learned.

In life and in work let your yes be yes and your no be no, and learn to use them both at the right times.