The idea that saying no will ruin your professional reputation and should be avoided at all costs is by no means a new one. However, in a climate of economic uncertainty, rising presenteeism, and ever-higher expectations from managers, this attitude just keeps popping up in opinion articles and surveys alike. So, let’s dig a little deeper…

A recent advice piece on the Fortune 500 Insider Network threw this line of thought into harsh perspective, when one successful businessman opined that ‘removing the word no from [his] vocabulary’ was the biggest lesson learnt in his experience that he’d like to pass on to young people starting their careers. Otherwise, he warned, they risk getting a reputation for being ‘high maintenance’. Leaving aside the fact that ‘high maintenance’ is an incredibly gendered word reflecting wider issues with senior management culture, are ‘easy to manage’ employees actually more useful for your business than more assertive personalities?

Of course, being easy to work with  is fairly crucial in most jobs, and that includes working with management; nobody would suggest that marching into the CEO’s office on your first day, telling them the task you’ve been given is beneath you, and refusing to do it makes you a good employee. On the other hand, does constantly saying yes to every request make you a good employee either? When you look more closely, this always-available attitude can have a whole host of unpleasant and unexpected consequences for both you and your business. Here are Discovery Performance’s top three:

1)      By not being realistic about your workload and taking on too much, you risk missing important deadlines and producing substandard work; clearly, this is not beneficial to either employee or employer.

2)      You run the risk of setting a precedent for other employees, particularly larger characters, to take advantage of your willingness and treat you like their personal slave. From an employer’s perspective, this can increase the potential for an unpleasant and therefore unproductive work environment. It can even foster a culture of bullying, which recent research showed is not as uncommon as we might like to think – a recent report shows that Acas has received 20,000 calls on the subject this year alone, and effects cost an estimated £17bn per year in absenteeism and stress-related costs.

3)      This attitude is detrimental to people development and growth. Whether you want to move forward, innovate, or simply do what you do more successfully, expecting your employees to say yes to everything with no concern for their own workload is not the way to go about it. It creates a culture where employees are afraid to question the way things are done, put forward a new idea, or ask for help when they are struggling. Neither your people nor your company can move forward in a climate like this.

There are also employee health implications to consider. We recently commented on the pressing issue of workplace illness and overwork; if businesses create an unhealthy environment where ‘yes’ is the only correct answer, they are likely to have a high instance of absence due to stress and ill health, not to mention presenteeism, which will negatively affect the bottom line. Surely it would be preferable to work in a company where open communication, free exchange of ideas, and respect for boundaries minimised this cause of illness?

Sensibly, the Fortune 500 article did suggest volunteering for challenging assignments. Challenging yourself to improve is unquestionably something every employee, old or new, should make a conscious effort to do. However, there is a huge difference between volunteering for a challenging project to develop your professional and personal experience, and saying yes to yet another assignment which has been sprung on you, but which you are expected to ‘volunteer for’. Drawing realistic boundaries around your workload, abilities and work-life balance is an essential skill in the modern workplace, and one which businesses encouraging an atmosphere where ‘no’ is a dirty word are failing to cultivate in their people.

Having a never-say-no attitude can be an especially damaging piece of advice to foist on millenials, who are already facing a far more adverse work environment than their predecessors. Statistically, millenials work longer than members of older generations like the Fortune 500 commentator, for less reward; almost three quarters of millenials expect to have to work beyond retirement, and are on average just half as wealthy as baby boomers at the same stage of life. And that’s without mentioning the fact that 79% of UK graduates expect to have to work for free or on zero-hours contracts after graduation; clearly showing willing and commitment is not the issue!

In a climate where the graduate talent war is fiercer than ever, despite the perseverance needed for graduates to land the right job, surely we should be striving to develop a generation of assertive, skilled and responsible future leaders, not mindless, exhausted yes-robots?

Perhaps, instead of clinging to old ways of doing things, and aiming for an easy life in the moment, managers should be thinking about what kind of environment they want to work in, both now and in the future.

After all, as we say on the OPEN Programme, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got‘.

Written by Florence Sturt-Hammond