When and How Women Should Say “No” to Go-Nowhere Projects at Work

I posted a blog today on Huffington Post in response to views Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has expressed in advance of the release of her new book, Lean In.  In part of that blog, I wrote about how important it is to essentially lean out when the task you’re being offered is just busy work.

I recall very vividly, as you might imagine, being told by a boss that a project he was about to give me was very important.  He was giving it to me because I was one of the few people who could do it well.  I was skeptical.  When I arrived at my office, I found a post-it that my boss’ boss had left in the file.  It read, “Don’t give this to anyone important.”  I took the file and brought it to my boss.  I told him that he’d been mistaken.  This job wasn’t for me.  He looked surprised.  I opened the file and pointed to the note.  He turned pale.  I walked out of his office before he had a chance to make up some excuse.  He was more careful after that, and so was I.

There are a lot of “go-nowhere” tasks at work.  I’m concerned that when women take the advice to “lean in” to leadership, they’ll do what they’ve done too often for years — they’ll take on the tasks more politically observant people would refuse.  They’ll do it because they want to be team players, to be nice or because they think they haven’t “leaned-in” enough.   They’ll exhaust themselves because these tasks bring a lot of work and little visibility.

Women need to be more particular about the tasks that take up their time.  I’d be surprised if Sandberg disagrees with this.  Tasks should pass the VCR test I wrote about in The Secret Handshake  — visible, central and relevant.  Sure, you can do some “go-nowhere” tasks just to help out now and then.  But a steady diet of it does not a leader make.

So, while you’re leaning in, make sure it’s at a place where you belong — where your talents are needed and appreciated.  And when someone tries to give you a task that others don’t want, think twice.  Try saying, “I appreciate being asked, but can’t do it” or, one of my favorites, “No. Wish I could.”

Women who wear themselves to a frazzle doing everything they’re asked rarely get ahead.  It’s natural to become resentful when others who do less pass by you for promotions.  Success at work is largely a persuasion effort.  No matter how good you are at what you do, your talents have to be sold.  If you’re wasting them on “go-nowhere” tasks, there’s no time to strategize, to match what you do to what the department or company values.  So start being particular about what you do with your time.  You’ll have more left for doing what matters.

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