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How to say 'no' at work

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay

Few words in the English language are more challenging than “no,” especially in the workplace.

Refusing certain favours, tasks, or opportunities can often feel uncomfortable; typically making one feel dismissive or unengaged with work. On the flipside, however, habitual “yeses” can prove more damaging to your overall career. 

By reflexively accepting your boss’ (or colleague’s) every request, you effectively reduce your potential and productivity as an employee. Rather than focusing on your specific goals and interests, your priorities are left, instead, at the whims of others. This also leaves you at risk of overcommitting and making false promises, as well as burning out over an increasingly growing workload.

As such, we break down the best ways to politely say “no” at work, and how our experts at Upskilled may be able to help. 

4 tips on how to say 'no' in the workplace

  1. Establish your priorities.
  2. Be honest (and explain your reasons why)
  3. Mind your wording and tone.
  4. Compromise or propose alternatives.

1. Establish your priorities.

Successful careers are built through a careful balance of accepting and refusing specific opportunities. These all depend on your personal goals, passions, and current responsibilities. 

Learning to say “no” starts with establishing and placing these priorities at the forefront. This helps in weeding out trivial opportunities in favour of those that truly bolster both you and your team’s professional goals. 

When determining workplace priorities, be sure to consider short-term goals such as upcoming deadlines and current assignments; as well as long-term objectives, such as skills or experience you hope to gain from your role, and where you see yourself in the company’s future. 

These build you the conviction you need to accept or turn down specific work requests. Additionally, there’s no harm in taking your time to respond, if possible. If you need to mull over a large favour, requesting to get back to the person at a certain time should be reasonable (though be sure to stick to this; accidentally forgetting or avoiding the person can come off unprofessional). 

2. Be honest (and explain your reasons why).

colleagues having a discussion with each other

Once you’ve established your bandwidth for time, energy, and current priorities, be honest with your colleague(s) or boss. Simply saying “no” may come off rude or dismissive, but explaining your reasons why can achieve a more understanding response. Be clear in your reasoning; if the task is well beyond your job description, you’re dealing with clashing deadlines, or you simply don’t have the time and mental space for extra responsibilities, be sure to firmly communicate this.  

Of course, legitimate reasons are key here – mere disinterest in important tasks or activities (i.e. meetings and client requests) aren’t a valid cause for turning them down. You’re still working towards a collective company goal, after all; so keep this mind when assessing requests, lest you damage your reliability as an employee.

Additionally, steer clear of fake excuses. This puts you at risk of being found out, tarnishing your reputation among colleagues. White lies about having a “tight, busy schedule” can backfire when used to turn down requests, only to accept other projects in the same timeframe. If an opportunity clashes with your current skillset, be upfront on the scope of your expertise and how you may not be the best fit for the task. 

3. Mind your wording and tone. 

Your words and tone strike the difference between a stubborn refusal and a graceful one.

When rejecting a request or opportunity, begin by expressing your thanks. Their approach, after all, is a flattering one, proving your boss (or colleague) values your work, knowledge, and input. Thus, showing gratitude leaves a positive impression on managers and keeps you top of mind should new opportunities come along. 

Author and professional negotiator, William Ury, terms this as the “positive no” – a refusal that diffuses tension and displays your respect for the other person. 

Furthermore, aim for a neutral, yet convicted tone of voice. An unsure, apologetic response can cause the other to keep pushing, while an overly aggressive one can damage your relationship. Be straightforward and clear on your reasons; anything less won’t sound persuasive or genuine. 

On top of this, avoid leaving the other with false hope. While a “soft no” is tempting (and often easier to give) – a malleable, flexible answer gives the impression that you’ll change your mind, and encourages the other to keep prying. 

4. Compromise or propose alternatives.

colleagues working together

Lastly, if you can afford it, propose an alternative solution. 

Ask if there are smaller ways to help, if alternative deadlines are possible, or if a colleague can step in to assist with your task. If you’re simply short on time, perhaps you could delegate part of your workload to others. Attempting compromise demonstrates your “team spirit”, flexibility, and willingness to engage, maintaining your professional reputation. 

If needed, you can even schedule a one-on-one appointment with your manager to discuss and re-organise your current workload – finding ways to fit in these new opportunities in store. 

However, if you find even small favours aren’t possible, be wary of workplace optics. As stated by Rebecca Knight of Harvard Business Review, “if you’re saying you’re too busy to help, don’t cut out early and don’t be seen taking long, chatty breaks at the water cooler.”  

Advance your people skills for the workplace!

Mastering the act of saying “no” simply takes confidence, conviction, and practice. All these are easily achieved through experience and constant communication with others in the workplace. 

While Upskilled primarily offers rigorous industry training at certificate and diploma level, current workers can also build their soft skills through our range of short business courses. Our program in self-management and professional development (SCSMAPD), in particular, equips students with stronger skills in priority-setting and task management, not only raising their productivity and efficiency in the workplace – but also helping them master the art of “no” and honest team communication. 

Build the skills you need for better, open, and honest workplace communication – and enquire with us on a course today.

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*By providing your information, you agree to our Privacy Policy and to receiving email and other forms of communication from Upskilled. You are able to opt-out at any time.