Suppose that Joe asks you to organize this year’s fundraising event for the community food bank. It’s a worthwhile cause and lots of important people from your company and the community attend. You might get noticed as the one who put all the pieces together. Do you think you should do it?
While working on the charity fundraiser is important to your organization’s reputation, it will have little, if any, impact on yours. This is what we call a non-promotable task (NPT), one that benefits your organization but not your career. Everyone needs to perform some NPTs, but our research shows that women do far more than their share, and that’s because everyone expects them to.
That matters because NPTs interfere with the time you need for more-promotable work—the work that draws on your specialized skills and matters most to your career advancement. But saying no to an NPT can be tricky because you may experience backlash if you violate expectations by saying no.
So, how should you respond to these types of requests? Our book, The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, details how to manage NPTs and say no without repercussion. From it, we provide three steps you can take.
Decide whether you want to say no
Answer these questions:
- Does the task directly contribute to the organization’s mission?
- Is it visible?
- Does it use your specialized skills, or can just about anybody do it?
- Will performing it well get factored into your next performance appraisal?
- Will it help you get connections or skills that lead to promotable work in the future?
The more you reply no to these questions, the less promotable the task, and the more strongly you should consider turning it down—especially if it is time-consuming. If you don’t know the answer to these questions you need to find out so you can spend your work time more strategically and concentrate on the work that will help you advance.
Determine whether you can say no
Who is asking you to do the task and what would happen if you declined? If you say no, people might think you’re not a team player, or that you’re insubordinate.
What are the expectations regarding NPTs within your unit and for your position? Meet those expectations, but don’t try to surpass them. Talk to your coworkers or a mentor to understand what the risks of saying no might be. How would Joe react to your saying no? Would he feel you stepped out of line? Would he carry a grudge? If so, and his opinion matters to your success, you shouldn’t decline.
But you can still make the most out of the situation. Can you fulfill the request in another way that is better for you? You might agree to do the task now, but only once another person is committed for the next time. You could break the tasks into parts and offer to do the one that is most intriguing or leverages your expertise.
And don’t forget to consider the NPT in the context of all the NPTs that you do; and, if you can, negotiate what you will give up in order to take on the new task. Here, you could offer to train another person to do one of your NPTs or ask for resources to support the work.
Plan how to say no
If you’ve decided that you want to say no, and can, do it in a way that doesn’t reflect poorly on you and that can help the requester.
Provide an explanation: It’s helpful to provide a short explanation when saying no. You might explain to Joe that you are working on three complex and critical projects with hard deadlines, so your time needs to be focused on them. A successful fundraising event requires a significant commitment of time and energy that you cannot divert from your projects in the upcoming months. Joe may be excited to learn that you are thinking strategically about how you best contribute to the organization, and your explanation will help him understand the tradeoffs you face—but you’ll need to do more to get to an effective no.
Solve the problem. Provide a potential solution while saying no. Help Joe find an alternative. Suggest another person who is low on NPTs or someone who would benefit from doing the task. You could respond to Joe by saying, “Thank you for thinking of me. I’m already overloaded with three major projects, so I won’t be able to spend the time needed on the event. Unfortunately, I need to decline. I do think that Doug would be a great person to take on the task, and he could benefit from interacting with others across the company. I know he’d do a fantastic job.”
Saying no to non-promotable tasks provides you more time to do the work that is valued most in your organization, which ultimately, is what will help you advance. Although you need to do some NPTs, you want to be strategic about what you say yes to. Choose wisely.
Laurie R. Weingart is a management professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She is coauthor of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, with Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, and Lise Vesterlund.