Saying “No” Not an Option for Some High Achievers: Ask Madeleine

Three Speech Balloons With Yes Maybe NoDear Madeleine,

I’ve been with a small and very successful business for fifteen years and am a senior manager. Every time we want to try something new, I am asked to be in charge of it—even though I already have a full-time job and am running all the other initiatives and programs I’ve successfully started for the company. I keep saying yes because I enjoy the new projects and am good at them.

However, I’m starting to feel that I’m being pushed to my limits and that I’m not able to keep up my standards on my work product, which makes me anxious.

My bosses keep piling on more, which I understand. We are a slow growing company and it’s hard to find the money to pay for more people. I love my job and I have a lot of flexibility, which is super important to me. My spouse tells me to just say no, but I don’t seem to be able to. What do you think?

Can’t Say No


Dear Can’t Say No,

The thing to realize about this situation is that you have allowed it to happen. In doing so, you have trained your bosses to depend on your ability to take it all on and do it all well.

The good news is that you can un-train them—but to do that you will need to understand what has been driving you to take it all on in the first place. What’s the payoff for you? Once you uncover the needs of yours that are being met by always saying yes, you will be able to find a way to get those needs met in a way that doesn’t exact such a high cost on you.

I would guess that you are a high achiever, always have been, and that others sometimes call you a perfectionist. So that might be one need that is driving your behavior. You also may have a need for variety or a need to innovate, and those needs are met when you take on all the new fun things. I recommend you discuss this idea with people who know you well. They will probably have insights for you.

Once you better understand your own needs, here are a couple of other ideas to try on:

  • Delegate more. People in senior positions who are high achievers have a hard time letting things go. They fear others will do things differently and perhaps—heaven forbid—not as well. This is part of being a senior leader. It’s time to unload a couple of projects.
  • Lower your standards. We all have been inspired by the adage “good is the enemy of the great” because, in some cases, it’s really true. However, in other cases, done is better than perfect and good enough is fine. Take a few moments to look at how you might cut corners in places nobody else really cares about.
  • Force a change in habits. Your current habit is to jam as much into a time frame as possible. A new habit would be to build a reserve of time into your schedule.

Alternatively, you can keep going like this until something breaks—like your health or your marriage—and circumstances will fix the situation for you. But wouldn’t you rather be the captain of your own ship, and not at the mercy of your needs and your habits?

Hope to hear how it goes!

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard

Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

9 thoughts on “Saying “No” Not an Option for Some High Achievers: Ask Madeleine

  1. Madeleine, I’m one of those people like Can’t Say No who became the company’s go-to person for all the extra projects. I ended up doing five full-time jobs (for this one company) for the pay of only the original position. When I was unable to negotiate a reduction in responsibilities and a fairer salary, I ended up leaving the company. If I’d had your advice then, I’m sure I would have handled my situation differently. Specifically, I’d have learned to say NO, unless… . When I left, the company president patted me on the head (literally) and said, “We’ll sure miss you around here, Pat.”

    • Oh Pat, thank you so much for writing this in – it is a dirty little secret of many bosses that they will take advantage of people as long as people let them. I am glad you left, and I wish you all the best!

  2. I read my story today when I read this post. I own a business, and it is easy and natural for me to say “Yes”. While I already knew it, I was happy to have the reminder that we need to understand our motivations. I examined myself today, and I am allowing my team to help me define the boundaries needed to make me more effective, not more compliant to the wishes and demands of others.

    Sometimes, we are enablers when we say yes.

    • This is so true, and enlisting your team to help you manage your tendency to too much “yes” is brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Hello Madeleine, thanks for sharing this! I too am someone saying “yes” a lot and is often referred to as a “perfectionist” and from time to time, the go to for projects. Most times it’s difficult to handle when the projects have similar or close deadlines, but I found that I work better under pressure. Not sure how healthy that is, but over the years I have noticed that I get the best feedback and results on the things that I jam out. Do you think there is a correlation with the “yes-ers?” and preferring to work under pressure?

  4. Hi Alycia! There is no research that I could find that correlates the two traits. The trait that most often correlates with working best under pressure is procrastination, not perfectionism. So, it is probably just two very specific to you that you are a perfectionist and you work well under pressure. I do experience however that for many people, like you, the old adage “if you want something done, give it to a busy person” holds true, mainly because people who have a long list tend to buckle down, focus hard and knock off everything on their list. People, especially bosses recognize this tendency and just keep throwing more tasks.

  5. Pingback: Stretch Your “No” Muscle | Made of Dirt

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