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The Next Wave
When to Say No

How to weigh the pros and cons of accepting new opportunities.
  • Carly Burnham
  • April 2019
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Carly Burnham

Learning to say yes or no judiciously is an important career skill.

Carly Burnham

Last month, I shared the value I found in my mother's advice to “Just say yes.”

This month, I want to explain why I believe it's also important to get comfortable saying “no” in our careers.

Once I began saying yes to new opportunities at the office, the requests started rolling in. I was soon in a position where continuing to say yes would be unrealistic. I would be unable to continue performing at the high standards I had set for myself. My day-to-day work would certainly have suffered.

But, that's not all: The point was to find new strengths and build new relationships. Showing up as less than my best in these situations would not accomplish those goals.

But, of course, some of the new opportunities still sounded interesting to me. I knew I had to make a change.

How did I manage this?

First, I triaged the requests that were coming in.

Based on my better understanding of my strengths and interests, I said no to the ones that I knew fell outside of those.

If I could, I recommended someone who seemed to me a better fit. With that recommendation, I was still providing some benefit after being asked, but I was protecting my time.

Then, I sat down and looked at the activities that were already on my plate. I discovered I was more interested in some than others.

Some of the activities or projects that I was working on were time bound. In those cases, I honored my commitments. In the cases where there was no agreed-upon time frame for my participation, I withdrew.

Where appropriate, I said I would find my replacement or at least offer a name to the organizers as a potential lead.

After clearing some of my plate, I looked at the offers that I was most interested in—either areas that I wanted to grow in or that I knew I could make a concrete and valuable impact.

I said yes to those that I knew I could make time for. The others, I politely turned down.

This is a process that I repeat quarterly or so, as my career in the insurance industry has continued.

But, like many people, saying yes comes more naturally to me. I have to remind myself that time is a finite resource.

While there are benefits to saying yes, like meeting new people, trying out new skills and finding new interests, we must be realistic about the commitments we make.

When you say yes, the organization that you've committed to will have expectations about the effort that you are going to put into their project. If you can't meet their expectations, you'll disappoint yourself and the group that was depending on you.

Setting this as a pattern or even making one misstep can tarnish your reputation. Our reputations are valuable, and overcommitting is one of the quickest ways I know to fail at something.

Learning to say yes or no judiciously is an important career skill. It is likely that you have made some of these missteps on your own. If you're new to your insurance career, spend some time thinking about both sides of these situations.

If you're further advanced, share how you learned these lessons with the young professionals around you.

Carefully explain to your colleagues or team members the thought process you go through in choosing what “extracurricular” to accept.

If you're delegating a request to one of your team members, be explicit about how they should reflect on what they can gain from the experience and how and when they ought to say no instead.


Carly Burnham, CPCU, MBA, has been in the insurance industry since 2004. She blogs at InsNerds.com and can be reached at bestreviewcomment@ambest.com.


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