It can be hard to say “no” at work. Most of us think that saying so would upset our peers, or worse, our boss.
But then again, we only have a limited amount of time in our workdays, so we can’t fulfill every request that comes across our desk.
Here are ways to say “no” at work without feeling guilty, as discussed by experts.
Table of Contents
- “I’ll get to it if I have time after I finish my priorities”
- State what you need, without emotion or blame
- Ensure that your “no” is respected to make sure that your words, tone, body, and facial language are giving a congruent message
- Master the art of “selectivity”
- Know the temperament of the person who is asking, and tailor your message appropriately
- “Not right now but later…”
- “I don’t have the bandwidth this week. What is your timeline?”
- Share your current priorities and ask for help in fitting the new request
- “I’d like to do that, but I’m not available until next week. Will you ask me again then?”
- Important distinction between earned guilt and unearned guilt
- 10 good ways to say “No”
- Make a list of your values
- See if values aren’t being met – and troubleshoot
- Make it collaborative
- Remember your worth
- Instead of saying a direct no, state that you have other obligations
- “No, but because…”
- Don’t say “NO” straight away
- I tell employees to “say no” through their actions
- Frequently Asked Questions
Terry B. McDougall
Executive Coach | Author, Winning the Game of Work: Career Happiness and Success on Your Own Terms
“I’ll get to it if I have time after I finish my priorities”
It’s one of the shortest and most powerful words in the world, yet why do so many of us have a hard time saying it?
Humans are social animals. We like to be liked. We like to fit in. We like to help our fellow humans. This is basically a good thing… until it isn’t. Many of us have a tough time saying no in a professional capacity. If someone asks us to do something that falls within our job description, we feel that we need to say yes to it and begin on the request immediately.
When you say yes to every request, recognize that you are increasing your stress levels, causing others to lose respect for you, and negatively impacting your job performance. If this statement rocks your world and causes you to say, “Yeah, but it’s my job, what can I do? I have no control.”
The reality is that you have lots of control. You have at your disposal one of the strongest powers in the universe.
That power is the word NO. This doesn’t have to be a harsh no, and it doesn’t have to be a defensive no. Even if they don’t thank you for telling them no, if you have the courage to start to say no more often, you will soon start to experience the feeling of more control, and you’ll know you are doing the right thing.
Let’s think about this. When you come into work each day, you probably have a to-do list of things that you intend to complete. When someone comes to you with an “emergency” that only you can handle, and you say yes, you are making a choice to bump your own priorities further down the list.
Suddenly, your priorities aren’t priorities anymore, and if you are going to complete your to-do list items, you either have to work longer hours, or you have to let things go until tomorrow, and either option isn’t good for you.
And if you’re one of those generous souls who has been tagged as the go-to person who is “always so helpful,” then there’s a good chance that tomorrow there will be another crisis that only you can handle.
You’ll find that the first no is the hardest!
Obviously, there are real emergencies, and there are people (like your boss) who have the authority to legitimately re-prioritize your to-do list. However, take a step back and see who comes to you regularly with requests that “only you” can handle.
Ask yourself these four questions:
- Do these requests impact your ability to handle your own priorities?
- Is this a co-worker or someone outside your chain of command?
- Are these requests a result of a lack of planning on the part of the requester?
- Are these requests being made without your boss’s knowledge and explicit support?
If the answers to these questions are yes, then it’s time for you to start saying no. Your “no” doesn’t have to be a “hell no” or “never.” It can be, “I’ll get to it if I have time after I finish my priorities.”
You’ll find that the first no is the hardest. You will also find that you are spending your time more efficiently and that people respect your time more because YOU are valuing your time more. Saying no to requests that are not your priority will allow you to say yes to achieving your goals more quickly and reclaiming the power to decide what you do with your time and energy.
Here are a few ways to practice saying no in its many variations:
“No, I’m sorry.”
“I can’t now. Maybe later.”
“I’m very busy today.”
“Try Googling it.”
“I can’t. Perhaps someone else can help you.”
“I’m on a deadline.”
Elene Cafasso, MCC
Founder & President, Enerpace, Inc.
State what you need, without emotion or blame
Powerful communication can be delivered “nicely” and still be effective and without guilt. The words make it powerful, and the energy behind the words makes it clear that the impact is not directed at the receiver negatively, no matter what the message.
Powerful communication makes the message effective, even if the recipient doesn’t like or agree with what they’re hearing.
If a relationship can’t withstand honest communication, then frankly, it’s not much of a relationship. In coaching, I work with my clients on the best way to do what we call “designing an alliance”.
This approach recognizes:
- We are both on the same side
- We are both responsible, intelligent, and well-meaning adults
- We both have needs and wants that are deserving of respect – neither is more important than the other
So how do you do this? You simply state what you need, without emotion or blame. The other party gets to say yes, no, or make a counteroffer. Then they tell you what they want or need, and you have the same three options.
Say you’re asked to participate on a team at work. You might reply with a counteroffer by saying,
“I’d be happy to help, but I have a few things with deadlines coming up soon. I can join the team in 4-6weeks. Does that work for you?”
Or perhaps you can’t do it at all. You might say,
“Gee, I’m sorry, but I really don’t have the bandwidth for that right now with what I’ve got on my plate. If you really need my input, perhaps I could attend only those meetings where you’ll be discussing my area. Or perhaps someone on my team could more fully participate. What works best for you?”
Ensure that your “no” is respected to make sure that your words, tone, body, and facial language are giving a congruent message
The first principle of saying “no” is to do it in a spirit of generosity—to yourself and toward the other person. The second principle is to be true to yourself. We’ve all said “yes” to a request and regretted or resented it —or, more specifically, resented the person who asked us.
Taking full responsibility for setting and protecting our boundaries strengthens self-respect and makes it easier to say “no” to the things we don’t want to do. And to say “yes” to what is truly important to us. The third principle to ensure that your “no” is respected to make sure that your words, tone, body, and facial language are giving a congruent message.
Beware of tilting your head to the side, slumping your shoulders, shifting your weight from foot to foot, or speaking your “no” answer as if you’re asking a question. Instead, stand straight and tall, keep an open, relaxed face, soft eyes, and neutral tone devoid of attitude or anger.
Tip #1: Buy time
When your boss or colleague asks you to work late or take on a project, don’t answer on the spot. Instead, say, “Let me check my calendar first, and I’ll get back to you.” Or, “Given what I’ve got on my plate, I’ll need to think about that.”
You can take the responsibility of making a final decision off of you by including the asker in your decision with: “Let me take a look at our priorities, and then we can discuss what works best for you/the team/the project.”
That way, they can eliminate you once they’ve seen that their “ask” doesn’t make sense, given all the other priorities. The advantage is that it saves you from being the naysayer.
Tip #2: Invoke a policy
When someone at work asks you to donate to a charity or other causes that don’t suit your interest or budget, stating your “no” as a policy gives it gravitas that can’t easily be challenged.
You can say, “Thank you for including me, and I won’t be able to contribute as it’s my policy is to give to the charities I’ve carefully selected—and my funds for this year are already committed.” By thanking them for including you, you’re being gracious.
When you provide your policy standards it has the double benefit of firmly closing the door on the request while also preventing them from asking you for a contribution in the future.
Lawyers | Co-authors, Look Out Above! The Young Professional’s Guide to Success
Master the art of “selectivity”
Here’s suggesting you not lose sleep over the feeling guilty part. A study of five thousand managers and employees found that the highest-ranked performers mastered the art of “selectivity.”
Whenever they could, highest-ranked performers determined what was important to focus on – what really moved the needle toward the achievement of their goals and the success of their team – and what was non-essential.
To the greatest extent possible, they said “no” in order to excel.
They avoided meetings, calls, new assignments, and activities of every sort they deemed diversionary and focused instead on these key priorities. The study found that, in terms of performance, this selectivity mattered even more than talent or hard work.
Your objective as a young professional is to differentiate yourself –to stand out while fitting in. Doing so will require saying “no” from time to time to achieve this selectivity. Having more work than you can perform to a high standard is ultimately career limiting.
The quality of your work is unlikely to be a differentiator if you labor under a constant and crushing workload. You can expect that anyone who assigns you work will be consulted about your performance at review time, if not before.
For your career to move ahead, all such persons must be enthusiastic about the quality of your contribution. You must advocate for a workload that allows you to do your best work without being perceived as a slacker.
How do you respectfully say “no” to your manager without jeopardizing your career? Here are some thoughts.
Contribute first, then advocate
Earn the right to say “no.” Your arguments as to why you should not do something will be better received if there is no doubt about your commitment, work ethic, and can-do spirit. For you, respectfully pushing back and saying “no” is the exception, not the rule.
So when you do, it will be taken seriously. The simple fact is more leverage exists for those who contribute and who are perceived by those above ascontributing.
If you know a conversation is coming, prepare for it
Sometimes, a request that you take on more work, lead a new initiative, attend a meeting, meet with a disgruntled client, or give a presentation will be sprung on you. You’ll have to think on your feet and respond at the moment.
But if you know such a request is coming, then take the time to prepare and rehearse your response. Be ready with your most persuasive reasons supporting your response. Anticipate likely reactions and devise strategies to address them. Perhaps you have a fallback position that would work for you.
Discussions about your workload are not adversarial. Instead, these discussions are collaborative as you and your boss seek a solution that works for you both. Get her help to determine priorities and to cut non-essential work from your to-do list.
Think and talk in terms of “company first.”
Craft why your selectivity focus is best from the company’s perspective. Perhaps talk in terms of which goals on your list will have the greatest impact on the company when achieved. Be sensitive to how you’re coming across.
Threats and emotional tactics – anger or pouting or crying – have no place here. It’s difficult to be adversarial with your manager and maintain an effective working relationship.
If you’re the type who volunteers for everything, while well-intentioned, knock it off
The momentary kudos for volunteering will be overshadowed by the dings for doing less than your best work. That you volunteered, as opposed to being asked to do something, will soon be forgotten and is irrelevant. Once you accept the mantle of responsibility, you own the outcome.
Volunteer strategically considering the importance to the company of the initiative and your capacity to do the job right.
In sum, learn to respectfully say “no.” The alternative – to quietly bear the work overload while your resentment builds, your performance suffers, and the perception of your ability shrinks – is unacceptable for you.
Saying “no” is an essential workplace soft skill which, like any other, will get better with practice.
Michael Trust, MPA, SPHR, PHRca, SHRM-SCP
Human Resources Leader & Certified Mediator
Know the temperament of the person who is asking, and tailor your message appropriately
It’s very easy to feel guilty when you’re asking to do something at work, and you just don’t have the capacity or the know-how to do it. Let’s start with not having the know-how.
This is a great opportunity to get the know-how, which is a growth and development opportunity.
If you can, it’s a great idea to accept these. Capacity is another issue altogether. Often, those asking have no idea what’s on our plates or simply don’t care. As layoffs continue to mount and people have to do more with less, this becomes a balancing act between not upsetting your boss or peers and being realistic about what you can handle.
One way to approach this is to have a running project list, with the project name, milestones, progress to date, and what remains to completion. To the degree it’s not confidential, you can show this to whoever is asking for your time and explain that you simply do not have the capacity to do it anymore.
Many supervisors think, particularly for exempt (salaried) employees, that 80 or more hours a week is ok; “you work until the job is done; that’s part of being exempt.” That’s not realistic; it burns people out, productivity goes down, and engagement lags, and people leave.
Pushing back politely is perfectly fine. Know the temperament of the person who is asking, and tailor your message appropriately.
It’s not worth a shouting match (oftentimes, this is unfortunately what it becomes); stand your ground. But, if you truly do have the capacity and just don’t want to do it, then that’s different. Be sure you can back up your position, or you risk losing at best all credibility and, at worst, your job. If you have legitimate issues with not being able to say “yes”, stand by them.
On a Friday afternoon: “Jane, I need you to work all weekend to get this project out first thing Monday morning.” You know that the project isn’t due on Monday morning to the customer.
Your response could be, “Bob, I appreciate that you want me to work all weekend. Unfortunately, I have other commitments, and this project isn’t due on Monday to the customer. I’ll be happy to pick it back up on Monday.”
Bob: “Jane, you’re exempt.. You work until the job is done.”
Jane: “Bob, I am exempt. I already work 50+ hours per week to keep up. This is not a reasonable request, and there is no need for this to happen unless something has changed. If it has, please let me know. Otherwise, I have other obligations this weekend that I need to keep.”
Elizabeth Gouéti, Esq., MBA
Licensed Attorney in Florida | Negotiation Coach | Founder, Avinu Consulting
“Not right now but later…”
In my coaching and training, I’ve discovered that one of the reasons why people feel guilty saying “no” is because they don’t say it from a place of peace. Many people say no because:
- they are disinterested in the activity or don’t see how saying “yes” benefits them;
- they are saying no out of convenience or fear; or
- they are saying because they’ve seen others say no in a similar situation
The guilt arises because they lack one or more of the 4C’s of Communication:
- Clarity (the what and why);
- Character (maintaining kindness and dignity);
- Commitment (sticking to their conviction from a place of peace) and
- Consistency (regularly flexing their courage muscle)
If any is lacking, the communication will be impacted. Instead of “no,” try the following examples:
“I appreciate that you’ve thought of me, but…”
“This sounds excellent. Let me find someone that is a better fit.”
“Not right now but later…”
Many people like to say that “no” is a complete answer. Although that may be true, we have to appreciate that people don’t generally communicate in one-word sentences/phrases.
Thus, in an effort to maintain the relational component, people should speak in full sentences (not to explain themselves away but to contextualize the communication if necessary).
Director of Marketing, KNB Communications
“I don’t have the bandwidth this week. What is your timeline?”
It can be hard to say “no” at work, especially if you are ambitious. However, we all only have a finite amount of time in our days. There is no possible way we can fulfill every request that comes across our desk.
While you don’t want to seem like you’re not a team player, you also don’t want to seem like you’re a stressed-out, harried mess.
Some phrases that have worked for me:
“I don’t have the bandwidth this week. What is your timeline?”
“My schedule will not allow for that.”
“I don’t have the resources.”
“I’m under a deadline for a high-priority project. Have you tried asking __?“ (Direct them to another possible resource.)
Even before you are in the position to say “no,” set boundaries for yourself and set expectations with coworkers and management. Chances are, you’ll be more respected for understanding your limitations.
People will be able to count on you to get your work done when you say it will be completed.
Lisa Schmidt, M.Ed., ACPC
Coach | Speaker | Leadership Development Expert | Owner, Worksphere
Frequently, we are asked to take on one more thing by a peer, a boss, or a client. What I have found really helps is openly sharing my current priorities and asking for help in fitting this new request in.
This technique is used primarily for working with your boss but can be adapted as needed. It uses information on what you are already doing as a way to rearrange your priorities or to turn down new work.
When I was working in an office, I had a whiteboard with all my projects listed, with key deliverables and dates I had committed to getting the work done by. When my boss came by to ask me to do something else, I said,
“Let’s look at what we have already agreed are my priorities, and see how we can fit this in.”
This accomplished two things: first off, it reminded her of all the other things I was working on for her, and two, it demonstrated that if I took on anything else, something would have to shift: either I needed a longer deadline on a previously assigned project, or I needed something taken off my plate, or—what usually happened—she decided that she would assign it to someone else.
Essentially I was influencing her to say no to her own request by engaging her in managing my workload.
Now that I work for myself, I use this with regular clients who ask for additional work above what we have already negotiated on, and I coach people on how to do this in their workplaces.
CEO, MTD Training
“I’d like to do that, but I’m not available until next week. Will you ask me again then?”
“No, thank you,” can be a complete sentence. You really don’t need to justify it all of the time.
There was a time when I could never say “no” without a long explanation or excuse that followed. But I’m more aware now more than anytime in my life of the impact of mental health, and the power of “no” can really help prevent you from burning out throughout the week.
You may need to say “no” if you’re feeling overloaded at work or in your relationships. Feel comfortable in saying it and don’t feel you’re under pressure to say yes. However, If you do feel like you need to justify the “no,” then here are are some phrases and ideas to help you:
- “Thanks for asking, but that isn’t going to work for me.”
- “Thanks for asking, but I’m not doing any XYZ while I’m doing ABC.”
- “I’d like to do that, but I’m not available until next week. Will you ask me again then?”
- “I can’t do it, but bet Louise can. I’ll ask her for you.”
- “None of those dates work for me. I’m afraid but I’d love to catch up. Send me some more dates.”
- “Thanks so much, but I’m not able to help you at this time.”
- “I can’t ABC, but I can help you by doing XYZ.”
- “Thanks, I’ll have to pass on that.” (Say it, then shut up.)
- “I appreciate you asking me, but my time is already committed.”
- “I wish I could, but it’s just not going to work right now.”
- “Thanks so much for the invite. That’s when I’m out with my daughter to the cinema, and I never see a film with her.”
- “I just don’t have time right now. Let me recommend someone who can help you.”
- “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’m afraid I’m already booked on that day.”
- “Let me tell you what I can do…” Then limit the commitment to what will be comfortable for you.
- “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”
Professional Encourager | Coach | Educator at Pacific Northwest | Author, “The Solo Workday: Manage your time and get more clients while working alone“
Saying ‘no’ in the right circumstances and in the right way sends a powerful message to those around you and to your own brain. The ability to say ‘no’ keeps you from being overcommitted and overwhelmed. It signals to those around you that you know how to prioritize and recognize the value of your time.
Yet, most of us struggle with this essential skill, and one of the ways this struggle comes about is guilt.
Why do we feel guilty when we say no? As with any human emotion, the reasons are as diverse as we are, but there are a few that pop up again and again. Defusing these can make you more confident, more able to say ‘no’ when necessary, and by extension, more effective in your career.
Fear is often behind the hesitancy to say ‘no’ at work and the guilt that we feel when and if we finally do. In uncertain times, many people are worried about keeping their jobs. They fear that saying ‘no’ to anything at work opens a space for colleagues to outshine them or bosses to dismiss them.
In fact, it would be naïve of us not to acknowledge that many people still work in companies where saying ‘no’ is a huge risk. The guilt here is hinged on a feeling that you might lose your job and let yourself and/or your family down.
In a workplace like this, you must have your non-emotional reasons for saying ‘no’ prepared.
“No, I can’t take on this additional project. Our department agreed that the current work I’m doing has top priority, and I want to give it my full attention until I’m assured of a good outcome.”
Then there’s the fear of disappointing others or appearing less than perfect. People pleasers and perfectionists struggle with saying ‘yes’ to everything and everyone. They want to keep everyone happy and they want to do everything perfectly.
Despite knowing that both of these things are impossible, people with these personalities (and I’m a recovering perfectionist) tend to take on too much in an effort to meet their own impossible standards.
The guilt here rests upon the dangerous notion that you are responsible for everything and everyone. Learning to say ‘no’ here means realizing that others’ happiness, contentment, and success is not entirely dependent on you.
The company will still be successful if YOU are not involved in every aspect. This requires some internal work, but then it’s time to put it into action.
“No, I don’t need to review the reports from the Sales Department. I trust that the manager has that under control.”
“No, I can’t come to an after-hours Zoom social. I already have a commitment that night.”
If you want to say ‘no’ and feel less guilt afterward:
- Have a clear understanding of why you are saying ‘no,’ whether it’s logistics or emotional. You may not be asked to give a detailed reason, but be prepared.
- Mentally make a list of how saying ‘no’ to this situation allows you to say ‘yes’ to others.
- Examine and talk with a friend, coach, or counselor if needed, how much you say ‘yes’ when you should say ‘no’ and why. Don’t allow yourself to be taken by surprise by your own emotions and motivations.
Important distinction between earned guilt and unearned guilt
There’s an important distinction between earned guilt and unearned guilt that must be explicitly addressed.
We usually feel guilty when we’re doing something that we believe is unjust, or out of integrity, or unfair. And let’s be honest: “I don’t feel like it” or being lazy are not legitimate reasons to say “no,” and in those cases, feeling guilty is the correct reaction – it’s your conscience trying to help you avoid a mistake.
It’s a signal from your value system that you’re doing something wrong. This is “earned guilt” and something to avoid or a cause for change.
If you are following your moral compass and doing things that do not cause unjust harm to others or avoid doing things that cause unjust harm to yourself, then you should not need to feel guilty.
Often, feeling guilty in such situations is a form of “unearned guilt,” and you should work to release it and should not actually avoid saying no in these cases.
Distinguishing between these two types of guilt can help you analyze your guilty feelings about saying “no” and know whether you should change course (say yes) or stay the course (say no without guilt). Honor your values for yourself and others.
Trying to create a win-win outcome for all the parties involved whenever possible is good. And definitely avoid sacrificing yourself and your own values to others or taking advantage of others for your own sake unjustly.
Your own values to uphold may include sovereignty over your schedule and priorities, ownership over your time and energy, and your self-respect (and expectation of respect from the other) for your self-determination and autonomy.
The others’ values to protect may include supporting their needs, providing them with information that lets them plan successfully and reach their desired outcomes, or avoiding disappointing them or letting them down.
By being assertive, protecting everyone’s values (including your own), and seeking to create a win-win solution, you are also helping to sustain a good relationship and prevent corrosion of trust on both sides.
10 good ways to say “No”
“Oh, I wish I could.’
“I’m already swamped with XYZ.”
“I appreciate you asking, but I can’t.”
“I can’t this time.”
“I have too much going on right now.’
‘Sorry, it doesn’t work for me this time.”
“I’d love to, but I’m overcommitted.”
“Sounds fun, but I’m not available that day.’
“I have some family things to take care of this evening.’
“Maybe next time.”
Instead of worrying about how you are disappointing someone by saying “no,” think of what you are saying “yes” to instead… yes to more free time for your own projects, yes to relaxation, yes to more time at home with your loved ones and pets, yes to more money, more sleep, and a more relaxed pace of life.
Every “no” contains a “yes.” Find your “yes.”
Nearly every dying client I have worked with has expressed a sense of grief and loss over how they prioritized their life. They feel deep remorse at having prioritized work over partner and family. They deeply regret placing work at the top of the list and feel genuine sadness at having “wasted time.”
They wish they would have been more present to their loved ones.
They wish they had more time with the people who matter most and spent less time hustling for supervisor approval and work accolades. This regret is seen down the board of race, gender, education, or socio-economic class.
So, say no to the non-stop hamster wheel, put down your cell phone and your TPS reports, and go have supper with your family. Dance with your partner. Listen to your kids. Later, you’ll be glad you did.
Certified Wellness Coach
Saying “no” can feel incredibly difficult. Fears like, “what if they get upset with me,” or even more extreme: “what if I lose my job over this!?” flood your mind.
You decide to instead, pour more onto your already full plate and fake-smile through it. You could continue in this way. Your risks of adrenal fatigue sky-rocketing, your relationships suffering, your health and vitality depleting, and worst of all, your quality of work slacking.
Did you catch that?
So many of us feel that work is life or death. We are afraid that speaking up for ourselves or asking for what we need could be the direct key to our career’s demise. I want you to know it’s just not true. I want you to know that your well-being is just as important as your job.
So, where do you start?
Make a list of your values
If the word “values” sounds daunting, start by asking yourself, “what is important to me?” Try creating a list of ten core items. These are your values. It’s important to know them so you can pick your battles.
If we don’t know our values, we don’t know what’s worth asking (or fighting) for. Some examples of values could be: spending quality time with family, creating art, health, travel, education, spiritual faith, etc. Everyone is different.
What lights your soul on fire? Knowing and honoring your values is central to your well-being.
See if values aren’t being met – and troubleshoot
Things will slip through the cracks and come back to balance. Some items may switch places with each other over time or situationally. Priorities become clearer and will ebb and flow; This is all okay.
What needs to be reconsidered is if one or more of your top three current values are being completely compromised or neglected. This is when boundaries are needed.
When there’s just no time, or worse, you’ve gone against your own moral compass and sold yourself out to your career. This can feel like frustration, sadness, defensiveness, anger, and defeat. This is a sign you need to reevaluate.
The questions to ask:
- What am I filling my time with?
- Do the things I’m filling my time with fill me up or bring me down?
- Is there something I can do/change in my own life and schedule to create room for my values and well-being?
- Is there anyone else I need to collaborate with to create space for my values and well-being?
If you’ve ruled out the option of personally re-shuffling your own schedule, then it’s time to identify what the obstacle is and where it’s coming from. If it’s your job that’s overloading you (or about to overload you), say something.
Make it collaborative
Much of the fear around asking for what you need and saying no at work stems from feeling like it’s one-sided. We want to feel supported in our needs but don’t even feel supported asking for them – so how do you do it? Work on shifting your mindset to one of collaboration vs. one of resistance.
You aren’t bringing up your needs and boundaries to be a rebel; you’re bringing them up so you can be a better and more effective person and professional. Remembering this makes it much easier to approach the request (or denial) with a collaborative attitude. Try saying no in a way that inspires cooperation.
An example is, “I’m honored you’ve trusted me to take on this task, but I am feeling extremely overwhelmed and overloaded lately. Can we find an alternative together?” Maybe it’s a different project, maybe it’s pushing a deadline, maybe it’s finding someone else to take on the duty, maybe it’s asking for help, or maybe it’s saying no altogether. You’ll know what you need based on knowing your values.
Remember your worth
You are worthy. Every single human being on this planet is. If you need a break or boundaries and values are being infringed upon, you must not devalue yourself. Compromises are important, but once you know your values and your worth, you know when enough is enough.
Make sure your needs are being met. Don’t abandon yourself.
As paraphrased by my favorite author, Glennon Doyle, “when it comes to disappointment, always disappoint others over disappointing yourself.” This is self-worth, and in choosing true self-worth, you never lose. In fact, you’ll shine more.
President, Ed-Exec, Inc.
Being a team player and showing ambition in the workplace is important, but it is equally important to limit the amount of work you can take on at any given time.
When turning down a boss, you should be as honest as possible without being passive-aggressive. There are two approaches to this: be upfront about your workload and give no leeway for additional work or offer an alternative.
For the first approach, you could say something like this:
“Thank you for considering me for this project, but for now, I am unable to take on additional work until I complete this other project first.”
For the second approach, you could say something like:
“I would like to help, Anna… But, if I were to take on more work right now, I wouldn’t be able to beat the deadline on my current tasks. Can I contribute differently?”
Other than the boss/supervisor, you might also have to say no to colleagues. The same rules apply: Be courteous and honest—you do not want to look flaky or as though you are taking sides, which could bring about unnecessary office politics.
To a colleague, you might say something like this:
“Unfortunately, I am not in a position to help you with this right now, as I need to beat a deadline. (If you say this, just be sure not to take on another project because you’d be lying).”
“I would like to help, but I was planning to complete project XYZ before next week, as the department manager has been asking me about it. Have you considered asking (name of a colleague) to help you? This is his area of expertise.”
Founder & Chief Burnout Officer, The Breakfast Leadership Network | Certified NLP and CBT Therapist | Author, “369 Days: How To Survive A Year of Worst-Case Scenarios“
Instead of saying a direct no, state that you have other obligations
Saying no is also saying yes to things you’ve already agreed to do, so by declining on taking on additional work, you’re recommitting to what you said yes to before.
When asked to do something that you don’t have the time or capacity to do, instead of saying a direct no, state that you have other obligations (list them if it makes sense) and that you would like to focus your time to finish those tasks first.
If it’s your boss asking you to do an additional task, present all of the work you’re currently doing, and ask them which tasks take priority right now.
Often bosses forget how much work they’ve delegated to their employees, so this will demonstrate that you’re keeping on top of your assignments and want to do what’s best for the company.
Chief Marketing Officer, RAIN Group
If you want to be extremely productive at work, you need to get better about controlling your time. Sometimes that means saying no.
In fact, the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research studied 2,377 business professionals to find out which hacks and habits drive productivity and top performance, job satisfaction, and happiness.
We found that the Extremely Productive (The XP) say no 3.7 times more frequently than The Rest.
You can’t say no to everything, but many things you can. For instance, did a colleague invite you to an hour-long meeting to get your opinion? Ask if you can join for the 10 to 15 minutes when they’ll need you in the conversation, so you don’t waste an entire hour.
Is your co-worker stuck on a problem, and they want to chat for 20 minutes? Ask them to give you a call during your afternoon walk.
When you say no and suggest an alternative, you’re still a good team player, but you’re also being mindful of your time and making sure your investment activities are completed, too. Don’t let others derail you. When you do, your priorities take a back seat.
Marketing Manager, Clarify Capital
The key in these situations is that your “no” aligns with the company’s goals and your role. If you’re declining more work or rejecting an idea, there should absolutely be a strong rationale behind it.
A lot of employees have an inherent desire to please and be seen as hardworking, which results in too many “yes” men and not enough dialogue around the efficient use of resources. At the end of the day, saying yes to every task causes more problems than it solves because it lends towards overflowing plates, neglected priorities, and wasteful labor allocation.
“No, but because…”
The strategy I typically use is “no, but, because” meaning that when I’m saying no, I’m presenting an alternative and justification for why another option, or dismissing something altogether, makes the most sense.
Most colleagues will appreciate your feedback so long as you’ve given thoughtful consideration as to why you’re being asked to do something. They’ll empathize with your perspective even more if you can provide perspective on how your “no” serves the company, any KPIs or benchmarks, or the bottom-line.
You won’t feel nearly as guilty when a team member agrees with your feedback, or an honest conversation leads to mutual understanding.
To give an example, there was a time where we were building out a newly created social platform, which was garnering virtually 0 engagement at the time. A team member asked that I create long-form content to be shared on the platform.
In this situation, the ends didn’t justify the means. The time investment of creating that content, in hopes of increasing our following, was just too sizable to make sense. So, I used a “no, but, because.”
Instead, I offered to help with short-form content and then contributed a few growth-oriented strategies that would facilitate engagement but require less time to execute. My “no” ultimately prevented me from being trapped in a time suck that would create waste for the company and me.
I freed up time that could be used to focus on other high-priority tasks and actionable items with greater ROI, while still contributing to the team in a way that advanced their underlying initiative of maximizing interaction and increasing our social following.
Michael Tomaszewski, CPRW
Resume Expert and Career Advice Writer, Zety
Don’t say “NO” straight away
Whether it’s your manager or a colleague asking for a favor, replying immediately with a negative answer will make it sound like you don’t want to help, whether you have the time or not.
Let them know you need to check your schedule, don’t leave them hanging, though – a few hours is more than enough.
Example: “I’d love to help, but I don’t want to promise anything before checking my calendar.”
If it’s your boss asking you for help, like taking on an additional project, explain what you need to give up instead. You know what you have in your basket and that saying “yes” to everything equals working super long hours or doing just a mediocre job.
Example: “I will be happy to help, but to focus on X project, I would need to put off the Y project for a week. Is that acceptable?”
Licensed Mental Health | Career Counselor | HR Trainer
I tell employees to “say no” through their actions
The biggest example I give them is saying no to non-urgent matters after hours to maintain a healthy work/life balance. If colleagues know that you are accessible after hours, it can often be taken advantage of.
Turning off the work phone or computer, or checking the emails or messages but not responding until the morning or until Monday sets a clear boundary and allows one to focus on their personal time without guilt vs. those who are always “on-call” feeling guilty if they don’t address something.
If the matter is urgent, that is a different story, and I do realize some jobs vary in responsibility and require employees to be much more accessible, but set boundaries from the start with your actions, whenever possible.
Founder & CEO, Click A Tree
Back then, our prof told us, “The only way to truly get respected by your superiors is to say No.” And he was right.
In 2012, I started a new position at a luxury nature tour operator. Of course, I was eager to please everyone, since I was the new guy. I quickly realized that this strategy resulted in everyone in the team offloading their work on me. Even for the smallest no-brainer tasks, they’d come to me and ask for help.
At first, I felt important and appreciated. “If they ask me for help, I must be doing well.” However, for some reason, my workload kept increasing, but the importance of my tasks didn’t.
After about a year, I discovered the magic of No. I started telling my colleagues to sort out their own stuff. It worked wonders – because they did manage to sort out their own problems without any of my help. That freed up a ton of my time to dedicate to actually important matters.
And I didn’t stop there: As my boss realized how much I suddenly got done, he started dumping more and more work on me. I realized the pattern: At first, I said yes to everything, having so much free time now, and being excited to help my boss.
But no matter how much I worked, the tasks kept coming. Until I told him, “No, sorry, Jon, I won’t do that. I’d rather focus my time on the truly important aspects of our business.”
Wow. I first felt scared to tell him that. I felt relieved once I had said it. And I felt like a king when I walked out of his office. It took him two days to digest that. And guess what? Only two months later, I got a raise. And I kept rising through the ranks from there.
Side fact: Since I run my own business, I see things from the other perspective: Workers who always say yes get more and more work, while workers who say no get more and more respect.
Since I know I’m biased, I try to be as fair as I can, but still regularly having to remind myself of this.
Host, Glow Radio
I’ve realized that my upbringing and past traumas have contributed to how I act in the workplace. I used to be someone who was afraid to speak up or disagree with my coworkers, especially superiors.
This is likely due to the fact that I felt like my opinions were disregarded as a child, and I’ve been accustomed to discussions turning into a big argument whenever I brought something up in the past.
I’ve spent some time healing from these traumas, and I’m happy to say that I’m learning to set more healthy boundaries at work.
This year, I manifested my dream job, and I’m so grateful that it is a place that welcomes healthy communication between colleagues. I saw my coworkers having an open dialogue with each other during meetings and realized that people could disagree without having the conversation blow up because of it.
Here are some examples that I’ve seen my coworkers say in conversation and some that I’ve learned to adapt as well:
“I have a bit too much on my plate right now and don’t have time for that task.”
“My schedule is packed, and I can’t meet today, but how about early next week?”
“That isn’t really my area of expertise, so I’m likely not the best person to do that task.”
“I see what you’re saying, but I’m not a big fan of that idea. These are the reasons why . How about we do this instead?”
Frequently Asked Questions
How Can I Deal With Pushback or Negativity When I Say No?
When you say no, you may encounter pushback or negativity from the person making the request. Here are a few ways to deal with these situations:
Listen and empathize: When the person expresses frustration or disappointment, take the time to listen and empathize with their perspective. Acknowledge their feelings and express your appreciation for the opportunity.
Reiterate your reasons: While being respectful is important, standing firm in your decision is also important. Reiterate your reasons for saying no, and be clear about your limitations.
Offer an alternative: If possible, offer an alternative solution or resource to help the person with their request.
Set boundaries: If the person continues to be pushy, it may be necessary to set clear boundaries and communicate that you cannot continue the conversation. Be polite but firm in your response, and avoid becoming defensive or engaging in a heated argument.
Seek support: If you feel overwhelmed or unsure how to respond, seek support from a trusted colleague or mentor. They may be able to give you advice or see the situation from a different perspective.
Remember, saying no isn’t about being uncooperative or complex but about setting boundaries and making intentional choices about how you spend your time and energy.
If you remain calm, clear, and respectful in your communication, you can navigate pushback or negativity and maintain positive relationships and a productive work environment.
What Resources Can Help Me Learn to Say No?
Being able to say no can be a difficult skill to master, but there are many resources available to help you. Here are a few options:
Books: There are many books on the topic of saying no and setting boundaries in the workplace. Some popular titles include “The Art of Saying No” by Damon Zahariades and “The Power of No” by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher.
Podcasts: Several podcasts focus on productivity in the workplace, time management, and saying no. Some examples include “The Productivityist Podcast” and “Beyond the To-Do List.”
Online courses: Many online learning platforms offer time management, productivity, and communication skills courses. Some popular platforms include LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, and Coursera.
Coaching or mentoring: If you have a hard time saying no, working with a coach or mentor can be a helpful way to get support and guidance. They can help you identify your strengths and weaknesses, develop strategies for setting boundaries and provide accountability as you practice saying no.
Remember that saying no is a skill that requires practice and self-awareness. By seeking resources and support, you can build your confidence and ability to set boundaries and make conscious decisions about your work life.
How Can I Avoid Over-Committing in the Future?
When you learn to say no effectively, you need to avoid over-committing in the future. Here are a few tips on how to do that:
Set realistic expectations: Be honest with yourself and others about what you can realistically take on. Don’t over-promise or commit to more than you can handle.
Build in buffer time: When planning your schedule or workload, build buffer time for unexpected delays or emergencies. This will help you avoid feeling overwhelmed or taking on too many commitments.
Prioritize your tasks: As mentioned earlier, you should prioritize your tasks based on urgency and importance. Focus on the tasks that have the greatest impact and align with your goals and values.
Learn to delegate: If you’re a manager or team leader, learn to delegate tasks effectively. Not only will you have more time and energy for yourself, but you can also empower your team members and develop their skills.
Say no more often: Finally, practice saying no more often. By setting boundaries and being intentional about what you say yes to, you can avoid over-commitment and create more room for the things that matter most.
Remember that over-commitment can lead to stress, burnout, and low-quality work. You can create a more sustainable and fulfilling work life by proactively managing your workload and learning to say no effectively.
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