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Lead Your Team Women in Business

Saying 'No' to Extra Work Especially Tough for Women

Saying 'No' to Extra Work Especially Tough for Women
Credit: Lightspring/Shutterstock

Need someone to take on additional assignments? You're more likely to find women who are willing to help out than men who are eager to take on the task, new research finds.

When asked to help with something around the office, women find it more difficult than men to say "no," according to a study from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

For many employees, choosing whether to take on the extra work can be a difficult dilemma because their decision can affect how their employer perceives them, said Katharine O’Brien, one of the study's authors and a postdoctoral research associate at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.

"It's a difficult decision and has a greater impact upon women more so than [on] men," O'Brien said in a statement.

For the study, researchers conducted several experiments, including one that was designed to find out why women are more likely than men to say "yes" than "no" to workplace requests. The study's authors discovered that social norms play a major role.

"Women typically are regarded as nurturers and helpers, so saying 'no' runs against the grain of what might be expected of them," O'Brien said.

The researchers discovered that invitations to do more work can have serious negative consequences on women. O'Brien said women who turn down these requests had worse performance evaluations, fewer recommendations for promotions and were considered less likable.

"As might be expected, women who said 'yes' to requests were more valued and regarded as 'team players,'" she said.

The study's authors also found that women feel a stronger sense of guilt than men do, and generally feel bad, when they say "no." [Are Women Held to Higher Standards at Work? ]

"In addition, [women] do not want to be denigrated by managers and co-workers," O'Brien said. "Those are powerful reasons why women are more likely to agree to extra work."

However, saying "yes" to all office requests isn't good, either. The study's authors interviewed one female employee who was always the first to take on additional projects, but was never able to finish them because the added workload was just too much for her to handle.

O'Brien said the employee did not object nor tell the manager that she didn't have the time to take on more duties, which resulted in negative comments on her reviews and led to lost opportunities for advancement. This finding shows that agreeing to all workplace requests can be just as bad for performance as turning them down, because it can put an employee's future success at risk, O'Brien said.

"Clearly, it is in the interests of all employees to strike a balance," she said.

With this in mind, another phase of the research examined ways women can get better at saying "no." The study's authors asked participants to keep a diary listing all requests and their nature, and to consider two strategies for handling them The first strategy was to say, "I'll think about it and get back to you," while the second was to consider the request in terms of what advice they would give their best friend about whether or to accept it.

The researchers found that both strategies proved helpful to both genders in turning down added work that was too much for them to handle.

"These were just two ways of helping women and men in their ability to say 'no,' and undoubtedly, there are others that can be just as effective," O'Brien said. "The point is that it is possible to develop interventions that will enable employees to decline a request without feeling guilty about doing so and to minimize any repercussions from managers and co-workers."

Based on the study, the researchers said they would advise both men and women employees to ask themselves several questions before accepting or rejecting an extra assignment:

  • Will saying "yes" help you be successful in the organization?
  • Will performing the request be something you would enjoy?
  • Will the extra work time and resources take away from your job?

The study was co-authored by Rice University professor Mikki Hebl and George Mason University associate professor Eden King.

Chad  Brooks
Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has nearly 15 years experience in the media business. A graduate of Indiana University, he spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including, local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Following his years at the newspaper Chad worked in public relations, helping promote small businesses throughout the U.S. Follow him on Twitter.