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  • Annette Corbett

A need to no basis

Updated: May 2

How Maslow helped me reframe the narrative around saying no

One of the things that made the Change Manager Practitioner exam so much fun (no, really) was its angle on psychology and, in the case of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” model, our eternal pursuit of balance across a broad spectrum of imperatives. Like a tower of Jenga blocks, we scale, deconstruct and rebuild in time to life’s ebbs and flows.

Stick it, Pin it, Memorise it - your Hierarchy of Needs

I used this model as a “professional litmus test” to help me figure out why I was feeling unsure about a great freelance opportunity (more on that later). While Maslow would later clarify the order in which the needs should be addressed is by no means linear, I discovered that physiological needs are critical, and not necessarily what they first appear to be…


Contracting and Physiological Needs


What does “shelter” mean to you - in the context of physiological need - when lined up alongside food, water and air?

Your home, perhaps? A roof over your head; protection from the elements?

I think this definition in the Collins dictionary says it best:

“Something that covers or protects; protection, or place affording protection, as from the elements or danger”

Shelter protects you from exposure, and exposure arises when we try something new. And if there is one constant in contracting, it's the “new”.  New organisation, new colleagues, new culture, new requirements with little time to adapt. You start at ground zero with, quite likely, elements of the role that you’re less familiar with.

Contracting starts from a place of vulnerability, and your shelter is, at best, a fixer-upper in those early days.


Exposure makes it difficult to sleep. We don’t even need to be cognisant of the fact we’re exposed, our subconscious will be busy doing the math while ruthlessly interrupting our sleeping patterns.


If you don’t have air, you suffocate. But anyone who’s experienced anxiety knows you can be a walking, talking (and breathing) hyperventilator.

They even wrote the book on it…

The good news is that all of the above will pass as your confidence in that new gig grows and lacking experience in one area shouldn’t preclude you from throwing your hat into the ring (most of the time).

In fact, there are bestselling books - “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway”, “Embracing Uncertainty” - which actively encourage you to expose yourself (in the best possible way).

BUT how do you know when brave is just, well, unhealthy? When saying no is actually the smart play?

Knowing your weaknesses is your strength

As part of the coaching journey I’m on, I often think about self-limiting beliefs, the glass ceilings we sometimes construct for ourselves and anything that might be construed as a weakness. But let's be real. We can’t be great at everything, and there will be skills you aren’t even good at yet.

Framing these as a “weakness” might go against the coaching grain, but if you’re being paid to deliver a service and your toolkit isn’t at capacity, you are at a huge disadvantage (and so is your client).

And that's just how I found my toolkit recently, which is why I said no to a very interesting freelance role.

A brief distinction between freelance and contract work. Freelancing usually requires you to hit the ground running with the required complement of skills necessary to do the job. Contract work usually has longer lead times with greater space to “figure out” deliverables you have less experience of.

The freelance role I was offered involved a short lead time, some complex requirements (one of which I’d describe my experience of as “weak”) and a need to travel.

Feeling the fear….

When first discussing the requirements for this piece of work I was brimming with confidence. I’ve “learnt on the job” many times before and was certain this would be no exception (despite a much leaner lead time, gap in my experience which related to a critical project tenet and that my mum has had a couple of falls recently, which makes travel less than ideal.)

While negotiations were ongoing I noticed I started to have difficulty sleeping. I felt anxious; chest full, stomach churning, yet, with no obvious cause.

Quite by chance I came across the Hierarchy of Needs model as part of some coaching research and was drawn to the Jenga block of fundamental needs, when it struck me.

“I can’t breathe. I feel exposed. What if I can’t travel? I can’t do this…”

The truth is, I wasn’t asking myself what was best for the client AND me. I had taken on a challenge that was simply too big in that moment, treating it like the projects I had successfully delivered before. Because we’re told we can do anything, right?

Wrong. This was my wake up call and I’m sharing it with you because, contrary to outside appearances - consultants, contractors and freelancers - they’re infallible too. Their learning journey is constantly in play, on loop, never finished and sometimes the ask is too big (as hard as that is to admit).

…and definitely not doing it anyway

Whether you’re contracting or freelancing, you must always be confident you can deliver on the client brief to the agreed timelines. For that, you must also know when the job is bigger than you.

On reflection, this was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made since becoming a contractor, but I’ve no doubt it was absolutely the right one. Why?

A few years ago, I qualified through CMI as a “professional consultant”. One of the key takeaways of that course was not only how to effectively consult, but why it was incumbent upon us to act with integrity. To challenge the reputation of consultants as being opportunistic, modern-day Dick Turpins.

So, I’ve made the right choice for the client which I know will reinforce my reputation for candour and client centredness, while highlighting the need to shore up my skillset so I can be ready for next time.


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