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How to say no at work

Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” He knew this to be true because busy people manage their time well. They don’t waste energy and effort. They’re big achievers.

But what if you’re that busy person who is struggling in a hectic environment where priorities continually shift, and tight deadlines never end? What if one more priority could cause you to break?

The issue is how to say no, in a professional way.

It may seem strange, but many successful employees don’t know how to say no. It doesn’t feel natural and there’s a fear of not being seen as a respected team player.

Our recruiters have pulled together ideas on how to diplomatically say no.

Tip #1—assess when to say no

Saying yes makes us feel productive at work. But at times, you should politely say no. Before doing so, assess if it’s appropriate. Here are some questions to help you do so:

Are you already too busy?

If you’re already tearing your hair out with an extensive to-do-list, it’s likely best to say no. You need to protect your wellbeing and make sure you don’t compromise on the quality of your work by taking on a new task. Try creating a matrix of your workload to discuss with your manager … if you don’t already have a favorite matrix type, explore the many options online.

Is there a better way?

Examine if there is a better way to get the job done. Is delegation a possibility? Perhaps bringing in temporary help? Maybe it’s a good idea to distribute parts of your existing workload load to make room for the new priority.

Is the request aligned with your responsibilities?

If the request isn’t aligned with your job description, you might consider saying no. If you’re the only one in the organisation with the skills to get the job done, then fine, but negotiate to have some items removed from your to-do list. If you’re being asked solely because you’re ‘that busy person who gets things done’, perhaps it’s time to say no.

How are you feeling about the extra duties?

If you’re excited about the new request, that’s one thing. But if you’re feeling anxious and/or stressed, it may be legitimate to say no.

Idea #2—discuss with management

After you’ve assessed the pros and cons of taking on a new request, discuss your views with management—before you say no. Feel free to express concerns about being seen as a ‘no-person’ or uncooperative. Pitch your assessment but stay open to possibilities management may have to support.

Idea #3—how best to say no

There’s an art to saying no professionally. Give thanks for the opportunity and state that you’ve looked at the options. Be straightforward but not negative. Be compassionate and understanding.

Here are key points you might want to discuss:

  • concern over your ability to meet your current long list of responsibilities
  • concern that the quality of your work overall will suffer
  • the other options to explore so the additional task can be completed
  • worry that accepting the new assignment might harm your wellbeing.

If you think it’s feasible, you may want to offer to help in a small way. Can you, for example, offer to share suggestions on efficiencies with the person who ends up with the job? Or be there to answer questions?

Avoid negative body language. Be mindful of your tone and the words you use. Avoid phrases like: ‘I’m sick and tired of always being the one to have to take on extra work.’ or ‘Why me … so-and-so never pulls their weight.’

Idea #4—rehearse saying no

It can be scary saying no, especially if you always say yes. Take time to practice aloud how to pitch your decision. Rehearse to build confidence. Practice a steady, calm and clear voice.

Idea #5—how to respond if you get a negative reaction

Your manager may be understanding if you say no, but if you’re being asked by a colleague desperate for help you may get a negative reaction.

Avoid a knee-jerk, defensive response. Bear in mind that you can’t please everyone and that your decision is the right one for you. Stay calm and carry on.

Final tip

Where possible present an alternative solution when you say no. This will show you’re strategic and keen to support in any way you can.

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