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When and How to Say No at Work

Elise Jones May 6, 2021 11:09:34 AM

Saying no is hard to do. From a very young age, we are conditioned not to say no, that saying yes is the path to getting what we want: attention from our parents, approval from our teachers, and friendship from our peers. It becomes part of our development to say yes to others, and it is a hard habit to break. After years of hearing the message that saying yes is how to be an ambitious student, a good citizen, a helpful partner, a capable employee, and a high-performing leader, saying no can be a concept that doesn’t even occur to most of us.

And as we move into the working world, the inflow of requests only gets more frequent. With companies moving toward more cross-functional styles of operation, people are fielding requests from every direction. Formal and informal asks are coming at us from our managers, co-workers, and direct reports, as well as from internal and external stakeholders all day long. And with email, zoom, instant messaging, phone calls, texts, and in-person meetings providing opportunities to communicate and collaborate with people all over the organizational chart, managing our time becomes even more important. Responding to every incoming request for your time, energy, or input is a recipe for burnout.

Why it’s important to say no politely in business

More than ever before, our professional success and personal well-being hinge upon how well we manage our time and workload. “You can’t say yes to everyone and everything and do all of it well,” says Bruce Tulgan in a recent Harvard Business Review article. When you step back and think about where you are spending your time and energy, it can be easy to see where you are distracting yourself from your values and objectives, but in the moment, as the requests are coming in, it can be more difficult to parse which ones are doable and which are not. And at the same time, it’s hard to think about potentially disappointing your teammates or your boss or turning down opportunities that might further your career or other goals.

Why is saying no so hard?

Social psychologist and author, Susan Newman says that fear and anxiety often crop up for people, stemming from “the perceived ramifications about what will happen if we dare to say ‘no’.” Will saying no cause our boss and co-workers to perceive us as not a team player or incapable of handling larger workloads? Will our friends stop inviting us to social events if we decline too frequently? Will our family members feel like we aren’t prioritizing them or that we are self-centered if we say no to their requests? 

Surprisingly, the answer to those questions is “no.” According to Newman, “the fallout from a ‘no’ is rarely as bad as you think it will be.” In fact, your friends, family, co-workers, and boss will likely respect you more for saying no more often and will be more mindful of your time in the future. Likewise, saying no to requests that take you further away from your objectives and values will help you align with what’s important to you and get you closer to your goals. At Valor, we call this Values Endurance, and it’s one of the core competencies that high-performers work on to ensure they are aligning where they are spending their time and energy with what’s important. 

How to say no professionally at work

So how can you decide when saying no is appropriate? There are a few checks you can run in order to determine if the request for your time, energy, or participation is aligned with your goals and is doable.

Evaluate the request

To start, consider what each request is really asking of you. While some requests are very minor and can be executed in only a few minutes, most of the things we are asked to do or look over will take more of our time, and more importantly, take time away from our other priorities. In order to determine what the scope and size of the request really is, take stock of the details of what you’re being asked to do and assess the components using a general intake system. 

You can do this by identifying:

  • Who is asking you? 
  • What exactly are they asking of you? 
  • Is the request something you already have or something you need to produce? 
  • Can the request be completed by someone else or are you the only one capable?
  • Does it require any kind of analysis? 
  • Does it require outside resources?
  • When is the request needed by?
  • What is the business objective and does the request align?
  • What are the possible benefits?
  • What are obvious and hidden costs? 
  • What might I have to give up for this
  • Will it matter if I don’t do this in a week, a month, or even a year?

By assessing these components of the task, you can determine whether it makes sense to invest your time and resources in taking on the request. According to Tulgan, “the bigger or more complicated the ask, the more information you should gather.” You’ll be able to quickly see if the request is more than you can handle or falls outside the scope of your role. Likewise, some requests are so minor, it would take longer to lay out the details than it would to complete it. Sharing your notes back with the person who made the request of you is also a wise idea, as it ensures you both are on the same page about what is really important. 

Once you’ve been able to look at the details in this manner, it becomes easier to compare the projects based on how urgent or important they are.

Know your values

Understanding what is being asked of you is only half of the equation. A request could tick off all the right boxes: being asked of you by someone important, a request that is urgent, and has all benefits and no hidden costs. But we are all working within the same number of hours in the day, and most of us already have constrictions on that time in the shape of other tasks, duties, and responsibilities such as ongoing projects and meetings. 

This is where knowing what your values are and aligning them with how you're spending your time and energy comes in handy. An exercise our performance coaches use at Valor is to look back at your calendar from the last month and see if you are spending your time and energy on the projects and relationships that you value. If not, you may need to realign where you are directing those resources. You can then use this information in tandem with the assessment of each request to determine how they fit together and whether saying yes or no is the right decision.

Effective ways to say no at work

Following the steps provided above can help you know when to say no to a request, but finding the words to tell a manager or colleague “no” can be even more difficult. Consider trying one of these examples to ensure you politely and professionally deny a request.

  • “That sounds like a great opportunity, but unfortunately I have a large project on my calendar already.”
  • “I’m not comfortable performing that task. Is there another way I could help you?”
  • “I’ve already committed to another opportunity. Maybe next time.”
  • “I’m not accepting any more work at the moment. Maybe X might be able to help.”
  • “I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed with my current workload, but I have a few resources for you to use.”
  • “Thank you for thinking of me, but I’ll have to decline.”

Warren Buffet is credited as saying “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” What he means here is that very successful people are highly attuned to their values and know when a request of their time is distracting them from achieving their goals. We call it Values Endurance for a reason: it’s easy to stray from what your objectives and priorities are. It requires focus and fortitude to stick with what is essential to achieving your goals and ensuring your values match up with how you’re spending your time.Learn more ways to effectively and professionally share your work limits. Request a demo of our coaching services today.



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