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How to say no at work—and be respected for it

Think declining extra assignments from time to time is only for the mean-spirited? Think again.

Businesswoman and businessman talking in office passagewayIt’s not easy to say no when the request comes from a superior, but if you have a trusting relationship with your boss you should be able to explain the impact the ask will have on your other work (Getty Images/Westend61)

How often have you been up to your ears in assignments, yet automatically said yes to a request that came out of left field? 

For some people, the answer is “too often.” Fearful of not looking like a team player, or wanting to be perceived as a “can-do” person, they jump on every extra assignment that comes their way. And that’s not always a good thing, says Eileen Chadnick, founder of Big Cheese Coaching and author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”.

“I call it being addicted to the yes habit,” she says. “And if you’re not careful, that habit can sting you, both personally and professionally.”

Chadnick says the habit can be particularly harmful for people who aspire to leadership roles. “Having the courage and discernment to know how and when to say no is the sign of an emotionally intelligent, capable professional or leader,” she explains. “But if you are constantly saying yes, you might be seen to be lacking the assertiveness to articulate when your plate is too full.”

So how do you climb out of the yes habit—or avoid going there in the first place? Here are some tips on the why, when and how of saying no.


Are you drowning in “busyness”? Are you having trouble keeping up—to the point where it’s wearing you down? “These could be signs that you are overextending yourself,” says Chadnick. “And if you’re overwhelmed, it will affect everything.” When it comes to work, she adds that it’s important to ask yourself: Are you on top of things? Are you respected for your leadership? Or are you seen as someone who has no boundaries?


It’s easy to understand how the yes habit starts. As management author Suzy Welch explains, being known as someone who regularly gets the job done is one of the fastest ways to get promoted. Still, if you’ve been operating on the assumption that “no” is to be avoided at all costs, you need to do a reality check. “This belief may be holding you back,” says Chadnick. 


Before considering any request, reflect on your priorities and commitments. As Chadnick says, “Some of your priorities might be professional—such as the need to finish a client file. Others might be personal, such as leaving at a certain time to pick up the kids a couple of days a week. Once you work out with your boss how you are going to compensate for that time, you need to communicate your commitments to everyone who needs to know.” (Obviously, flexibility will come into play—during tax season, for example.)


“Typically, a yes person reacts and doesn’t respond,” says Chadnick. “But sometimes you might need to say, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ That buys you a bit of time to assess the situation—because you don’t want to start saying, ‘No, no, no’ all the time, either. You want to be a reflective leader and thoughtful.” Sara McCord, author of 4 Completely Inoffensive Ways to Say “No” at Work, agrees: “No one wants to be known as the person who always declines,” she says. 


Despite the need for reflection, some types of requests should be easy to reject right away—such as those that are illegal or that involve abusive language or behaviour. As Eugene Dilan of DILAN Consulting Group, a member of the Forbes Coaches Council, points out in When Is It OK To Say ’No’ In The Workplace Without Fearing The Consequences?, “It is never OK to be abusive, and if you do not say “no” and set a limit right away, then you may inadvertently send a message that you are OK with this kind of treatment.” 

In the case of unethical requests, it can be tricky to respond if the request is coming from your boss, says Chadnick. As she points out, your answer will depend on the situation and your relationship. You don’t want to make your boss uncomfortable, either. She suggests a response such as: “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t feel right to do XYZ. I’m going to respectfully decline and ask if there might be another way to handle [the situation].” 


Experts have various suggestions that can help sift through requests that are not easy to classify. For example, Rebecca Knight, a contributor to Harvard Business Review, advises in a guide on the subject that you first determine how “interesting, engaging, and exciting the opportunity is,” and then figure out whether it’s feasible for you to help. “Don’t say no until you’re sure you need to,” she says.   


If you feel awkward saying no, there are ways to soften the delivery. As Chadnick points out, you should acknowledge the request and show respect and appreciation for that person, so they don’t feel dismissed. And sometimes, rather than just saying no flat out, you can offer to see how else you might deal with the work. “When you do, people will often be grateful and see you as an extraordinarily helpful person,” she says.


Be honest about your reasons for saying no. As Chadnick says, “That might mean saying something as simple as, ‘If I took this on with all my other extra work, you would not be getting the quality that I think this file deserves.’ And you may find, as I have, that people will respect you for being honest and trust you for knowing your capacity.”


It’s not easy to say no when the request comes from a superior. But as Chadnick points out, “If you have a trusting relationship with your boss, you should be able explain that this project would have an impact on your other work.” 

McCord echoes that thought. She suggests saying, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I was planning to spend this week working on [name of other projects].’” This works for a couple of reasons, she says: “First, it’s flattering that your manager thought of you. Second, if your boss knows this new task is more important, it invites them to say, ‘Let’s push those other projects to the backburner.’” 

As with any habit in life, breaking free from saying yes all the time takes awareness, patience—and practise. But once you’ve done it, you might wonder why it took you so long.


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