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Career planning: Finding the confidence to say “no”

Think about the last time you said “no” to someone, either in a personal or a professional context. How did it feel? For many of you, declining that ask or invitation probably felt hard. You might have struggled with guilt, doubted your choice, or worried about how others around you would react.

It’s especially hard to say “no” when someone offers you a career opportunity, even if the role or project isn’t a good fit for you. You might wonder how a “no” will affect your professional future— “Will I get another chance to do something this big and important?” Pride might cloud your judgement— “They really need me to do this.” Or you might question your understanding of how the opportunity fits with your career goals—“The person making this offer must know more than I do.”

I’ve been there. Once, I was on sabbatical (a glorious and rare benefit—extended paid time off to recharge or build new skills) when my boss called. “There’s a tremendously important role opening up,” he said, “and I thought it would be perfect for you. I’m calling because I didn’t want you to miss it.” I asked him to tell me more, and he explained that the role was a technical leadership position that would involve developing a specialized, high-growth potential product with a team in the U.S.

My heart sank. During my sabbatical, I’d had time to reflect on my interests and strengths. I knew that I wanted my next role to be technology-focused, but also that I was most passionate about global, customer-oriented work with plenty of variety. My boss had gotten one of my interests right (technology), but missed the other areas that were important to me. After a moment of reflection and a deep breath, I was able to say, “Thank you so much, but this isn’t the right opportunity for me.”

Of course, I wasn’t always confident enough in my career goals to turn down a big opportunity on the spot. Getting here took time—but the general process I used is simple, and fairly easy for anyone to replicate. It starts with a 2×2 grid that maps Affinity vs. Aptitude:

Using this grid as a framework, reflect on the positions you’ve held over the course of your career, and place individual roles, characteristics, tasks, and themes into each of the cells. Here’s a snapshot of my grid in progress:

The lower-right cell captures roles and tasks in which I can become completely immersed, and through which I achieve flow. These are things I almost can’t help but do; for example:

  • Ask me to walk quickly through a room full of people, and I’ll fail almost every time. I can’t help but stop to talk and ask questions; I get enormous satisfaction when I learn something new or connect people to amplify their voices and causes.
  • Ask me to investigate one topic, and when I report back, I’ll probably have pages of information on adjacent trends and secondary consequences. Tell me to run a U.S.-focused project, and I’ll start explaining how the same solutions could apply to a similar problem in China or France. I’m a systems thinker, and I naturally gravitate toward exploring upstream and downstream, even when I’m explicitly told to dive deep.
  • Ask me to develop a new product, and I’ll immediately want to observe customers in action. Looking at survey results and reports doesn’t spark my creativity, but as soon as I have a chance to interact with a customer in their native habitat, I’ll have hundreds of ideas and recommendations for product features.

On the other hand, the left side of the matrix—and the upper left in particular—reflects tasks that I dread and have to force myself through. Finally, the top right captures skills that I’m not confident in yet, but am excited to develop further.

When I finished this exercise and looked at my table, I was able to distill the characteristics and themes in the lower-right cell into three major requirements: customer orientation, global focus, and variety. Those requirements capture what I need in a role to thrive and produce great results.

The lower-right cell is only 25% of the picture, though. When I need to determine whether an opportunity is a good fit, I evaluate it with respect to the entire grid:

  • Will I need to regularly perform tasks in the upper-left quadrant (“don’t enjoy” + “not good at”)? If so, I say “no” and walk away. I know that grinding through tasks I don’t enjoy, and that don’t come naturally to me, will only result in frustration and burnout.
  • Do core responsibilities of the role fall in the lower-left quadrant (“don’t enjoy” + “good at”)? If so, I’m skeptical. When someone asks me to take on a role because “you’d be really good at it,” I’m tempted to say yes even if I won’t enjoy the work—flattery is powerful! But aptitude isn’t everything, and I know I’ll struggle if I’m not genuinely excited about the job.
  • Does the opportunity involve any tasks in the upper-right quadrant (“really enjoy” + “not good at yet”)? If it doesn’t, that’s a red flag. Working only on things I’m already good at can be fun for a few days at a time, but I know I’m bound to lose interest if I’m not learning anything new.

When I have a chance to do work I love, in a context that leverages my core competencies while also providing a path to growth, I seize it. But if I’m offered a title bump that will take me away from everything I enjoy about my current role, I can say “no” in a clear voice and feel confident that I’m doing the right thing for myself and my career.

This exercise can be an incredibly powerful career-planning and decision-making tool. But—and this is a big “but”—it only works if you’re honest. As you fill in your table, set aside any stories you’ve been telling yourself (or hearing from your coworkers, managers, or society at large) about what you “should” enjoy or excel at. For example, I know a very successful woman who loves project management. She does not want to lead a team or set strategy, even though society tells us that we need to be excellent leaders and strategists to rise in the professional ranks. Instead, she focuses on what she’s best at— delivering results on time and within budget—and consistently chooses roles that emphasize those skills. As a result, she’s one of the most highly valued employees in her organization.

Of course, I haven’t always had the luxury of saying “no” to every role that isn’t as satisfying or challenging as I’d like—and most likely, neither will you. But you can always advocate for yourself within the role you have, whether that means taking on projects that are a better fit for your skills, swapping tasks with a colleague whose interests complement yours (with permission from your manager, of course), or even assuming extra responsibilities when you see a chance to grow. If you really understand what you enjoy and what you’re best at, you’ll be able to make the most of the role you’re in now, and you’ll be able to confidently saying “no” to opportunities that don’t move you closer to the role you want in the future.

When was the last time you said “no”? Was it hard to do? What did you learn? I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and advice for others in the comments below.

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  1. Last time I said “no” to an opportunity (I purposely use the term “opportunity” to distinguish from the situation where the then current role was evaporating so I needed to take a new positon) was when a C-level exec offered me their TA position. The track record from this position was pretty stellar…a ~ 2 year stint where most ended up in VP / GM level positions within a couple years after the stint. When the offer came to me, our first born with just a couple of weeks old. I talked for a couple hours with the person who was currently in the role, learned about a lot of extremely interesting projects/activities that the job would provide and also learned that the travel was extensive…added up to several months out of the year cumulative. I went to meet the exec FtF and told him that while I appreciated the offer, and did my research, and gave it thorough thought, that I came to the conclusion that while the TA job will come up every couple of years, I’ll only get the first couple of years with my first child once, so I’ll decline and hope to be considered in one of the future rounds. Looking me in the eye, he said “I can’t think of anything to counter that, thank you thinking it through and being resolute.” For the next couple of years, just about every time I ran into him, he asked me how my son was doing. And 20 years later, I am still very resolute I made the right decision and it led me to choosing future roles that allowed me to have more time for family. Sometimes a 2×2 isn’t needed, just the personal honesty of knowing what your personal high level bit is in life. When one is still figuring that high level bit out, or isn’t presented an opportunity where the choice is clear, that 2×2 process can be helpful to think it out.

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