Should You Learn to Say "No" at Work?

Learning to say “no” is touted as an essential component of reducing stress, overwhelm, and burnout. If you’d like to do a little brushing up on this concept, here’s a fantastic refresher from my friend Nikki who writes an amazing blog aimed at empowering women. Following her tips in your daily life will help you hone your “No” skills.

But in the professional context, things can get complex. Apart from examining your true desires, following your intuition, and being honest with yourself and others, you’re flooded with extra factors and influences that can make a “no” especially hard to dole out.

Will your “no” taint your reputation in the eyes of the senior colleague who made the ask? Would a “yes” open the door to contacts or opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible? Is “no” really even an option at work?

Let’s break this down.

First things first: put yourself on alert for professional situations where you’re presented with requests that could potentially warrant a “no”.

I’d be willing to bet that before you begin this exercise, at least half of your “yesses” are made on autopilot. So start to be mindful of your choices. When you drill down, nearly everything you take on is a choice (regardless of whether presented to you in the form of a neatly packaged “yes” or “no” question) - you have way more control than you might think!

Once you’ve raised your awareness of situations where you’re presented with a choice, you’ll need a go-to response to buy you a bit of time. Until you’ve become really good at making quick decisions and formulating appropriate responses, this extra time is necessary so you can consciously think before you give your “yes” or “no”. Here is the easiest one to pull off:

“I’ve got to jump on a call/respond to an emergency e-mail/attend to an urgent matter, so I’ll circle back with you to discuss this in a half hour.” (Do NOT throw in a “Sure!” or “Of course!” or anything else that might be construed as a “yes”. Just stick to the script!)

Once you’ve bought yourself a little time to gather your thoughts, assess these factors:

Is the ask something that’s part of your job description and coming from someone with the authority to make the request?

It seems obvious that you don’t have the option to say “no” to a request from a direct supervisor who’s asking you to do your job, but it isn’t always this crystal-clear. In many cases, you have more than one “boss”, and in the professional world, job descriptions tend to be based on “big picture” tasks. (I’m not even sure any of my professional roles have ever had a real job description!) But the bottom line is, no matter how much we all love the jokes going around the Internet about staying home from work because it doesn’t “spark joy”, there are certain things you have to suck up and get done no matter what.

But I’d caution that even then, you should be aware of whether a superior is consciously or unconsciously doling out rote assignments to you and “choice” assignments to colleagues who may fit a different demographic (this is one of the places bias is likely to manifest). And begin to note which assignments are giving you heartburn so you can assess whether you ultimately need to aim for another role or change direction with your career.

If you have an internal knee-jerk “no” reaction to a request, what’s the underlying reason?

If the request isn’t something you must accept because it’s part and parcel of your job, it may be time to brush up your workplace “no” skills. But before you immediately conclude that something is a “no”, pause to think about the basis of your “no” instinct. What is the root emotion? Are you annoyed that you’re being asked to do something that is below your level? Are you stressed because you’ve got too much on your plate already? Finally, is your “no” reaction rooted in fear? Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone is the best thing you can do to move up the ladder.

And even once you determine that you’re experiencing a “no” reaction rooted in legitimate discord with your values or goals, is there any reason saying “yes” might ultimately be aligned with your career plan, even if the task at hand isn’t necessarily the most riveting assignment? Plenty of uber-successful people have tales of putting in years of grunt work to gain entry to the roles they were aiming for - but plenty of others stagnate in their careers performing dead-end work. So evaluate where a particular task falls on this spectrum before you decide how to react.

If your initial instinct is “yes”, should you really say “yes”?

Have you been presented with an amazing opportunity you’ve been waiting for? Is it a passion project you’re excited to take on? Or are you saying “yes” out of a sense of obligation? If the latter, you likely need to go back to the initial work practicing “no” in everyday life to learn to listen to your gut instincts. Old habits die hard, especially when you throw in the conditioning you’ve been subjected to in the corporate culture.

Even if something’s unequivocally a yes, do you honestly have the time and resources to give your best yes? If not, you may need to give a “no” regardless of your desire to take on the project. No matter how critical things may seem in the moment, it’s unlikely that any one decision will make or break your career. And even if you care about something deeply, if you aren’t in a position to take on a task effectively, you’re doing your values a disservice by saying “yes”.

One of the most illuminating moments of my career came in the midst of my first maternity leave, when a client asked me and my boss to take on what would have been a hugely profitable and high-profile project and was right up my alley. Thankfully, my boss stepped in and said “no” for me (at that point in my career, if left to my own devices, I likely would have said “yes” and then killed myself juggling a newborn and a huge project while on “leave” and ended up miserable and not giving my best in any area of my life), but the surprising part was the client’s reaction. The client was sincerely thankful that we were honest about our capacity to take on the project, and the level of trust in the client relationship was instantly on a higher plane, which led to plenty of similar opportunities down the line.

Now, to the really difficult part: how to actually say “no” in the professional context.

Saying “no” in the professional context brings up added baggage as compared to saying “no” in your personal life. So it’s critical to frame your “no” in a straightforward, yet strategic manner. There’s no script for this one because every situation is unique. But in general, it helps to give your “no” in the form of honesty with a side dose of benefit directed at the recipient.

Compliments never hurt (as long as they are genuine - I’d never advocate for acting in an inauthentic manner). “This is such a creative idea! But I’m not the best situated to help you implement it.”

Goodwill directed to others in the workplace is another useful deflector: “I’m glad you asked me because I’ve been working closely with [insert name of a more junior colleague] and know this is right up her alley. I’m at capacity right now but this would be an amazing opportunity for her.”

If you need to say “no” to a request that you’ve determined may be rooted in bias or is something inappropriate for your level of seniority, the best approach might be turning the tables and questioning the person who made the ask, such as “Could you explain why you selected me for this?”. Open-ended questions can help things click or open a dialogue that will help you gain ammunition for communicating your “no” in a productive manner (or might lead to a change of heart once you gain a better sense of where the requester is coming from).

Finally, if you need to say “no” because you’re already ten feet underwater and on the verge of your eighteenth breakdown of the week and one more thing might make you contemplate jumping out the window, honesty is the best policy. Be direct and firm. If you’re operating in an authentic manner (i.e., you’re working your bum off and genuinely cannot take on anything else and if you do you’ll almost certainly be forced to do a shoddy job), you’ll be surprised how accepting people can be of a “no” in this situation. Or if you’re in an environment where no amount of workload warrants a “no”, practice cheerfully saying “Great, I can get this done by next Friday!” (and start some deep reflection on whether your current workplace is where you really want to couch your career).

Sometimes you have to say “no” to yourself.

This post would be incomplete if I didn’t point out that the nameless “requestor”/”recipient of your no” may actually be looking at you in the mirror. How many things on your plate are there because you volunteered without thinking, or are based upon standards you’ve imposed on yourself? Give yourself permission to let go of things that aren’t going to have a material effect on your goals. Cut yourself some slack and work on directing your energy to the things that objectively matter the most.

I wish I could say “practice makes perfect” and that before long, you’ll have saying “no” down pat in your professional environment. But this is a case of “practice makes better”. Some situations will be easier than others to navigate, but if you do some conscious work at saying “no” in your career, it will help you focus on the actions that align with your values and goals. And those actions will ultimately be the drivers for your successes.

About the author: Amy Bowen is a career coach who helps high-achieving professional women feeling trapped, overextended, or burned out find their authentic and streamlined path to success by “cleaning up” their careers (and lives) applying minimalist principles and strategies. To learn about Amy’s career coaching programs, visit http://bit.ly/thecleancareerinfo.