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Women Find It More Difficult to Say “No” to Excessive Workplace Requests


by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

Saying “No” without feeling guilty or jeopardizing professional relationships and performance evaluations is not easy to do

Nearly everyone who has worked for an organization has experienced having a colleague or supervisor ask them to take on an additional assignment that is not part of their job. Sometimes it is a small request requiring little preparation or time. Then there are those that entail a lot more involvement, such as chairing a committee, writing a report, or heading a special project.

Deciding whether to say “yes” or “no” to these kinds of requests can be a dilemma for employees that could affect how they are perceived within the work group or even have career consequences.

“It’s a difficult decision and has a greater impact upon women more so than men,” said Katharine O’Brien, a postdoctoral research associate at the Baylor School of Medicine, who conducted three separate studies on gender differences in the ability to decline workplace requests. Mikki Hebl of Rice University was her dissertation advisor, and Eden King of George Mason University collaborated on the study.

The first study of more than 900 people, nearly evenly split between men and women, supported the conventional thought that women find it more difficult than men to say “no” when asked to help with something.

“That result was not surprising,” O’Brien said. “However, we thought personality might account for the difference. We used the personality measures of agreeableness and conscientiousness and found no statistical difference between men and women in their reluctance to say ‘no’ to requests; so there were other reasons why women found it difficult to say ‘no.’”

The second study sought to learn why women are more likely to say “yes” than “no” to requests than males. The results revealed 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 explained.

Women who turn down requests experienced worse performance evaluations and fewer recommendations for promotions, and were considered less likeable when they did not behave communally, O’Brien said.

“As might be expected, women who said ‘yes’ to requests were more valued and regarded as ‘team players,’” she added. “Women feel a stronger sense of guilt when they say ‘no’ and feel bad when they do. In addition, they do not want to be denigrated by managers and coworkers. Those are powerful reasons why women are more likely to agree to extra work.”

However, saying “yes” too often can have its pitfalls. O’Brien related an anecdote from her study about a woman who was very popular with coworkers. She had a great personality, was outgoing and energetic, and was always the first to take on additional projects. However, she never seemed to advance because she was unable to complete all her assignments due to overburdening herself with extra tasks. When her manager took advantage of her by assigning more projects she did not object nor tell the manager that she did not have the time to take on more duties. This resulted in negative comments on her appraisals, which led to lost opportunities for advancement.

That person’s experience shows that saying “yes” to requests can be just as bad for performance as saying “no” because it can put an employee’s future success at risk.

“Clearly it is in the interests of all employees to strike a balance,” O’Brien said.

The challenge is to be able to decline a request without jeopardizing personal and professional relationships, performance evaluations, or resulting in feelings of guilt. The third phase of O’Brien’s research looked into ways to empower women to get better at saying “no” by having them engage in a brief remediation study.

Participants were asked to keep a 2 week diary listing all requests and their nature, and consider two strategies in handling those requests. The first strategy was simply to say “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” The second was to regard the request in terms of what advice would they give their best friend about saying “yes” to the request.

O’Brien said both interventions proved to be helpful to women in saying “no” to requests, with the first strategy being most useful to women in responding “negatively.”

“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,” she 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 coworkers.”

Clearly there are times when both male and female employees should say ”yes,“ and this study was designed to promote thoughtfulness in responding to requests, she said.

“Some questions that people should ask themselves before accepting or rejecting a request include ‘Will saying yes help me be successful in the organization?’ ‘Will performing the request be something I would enjoy?’ and ‘Will it take time and resources away from my job?’”