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Learning how to say no at work

By Rosa Ritchie | 09 April 2018

In most workplaces team members are encouraged to be helpful and cooperative. Teams that are operating well are highly communicative and transparent, letting each other know where they’re up to, what’s next, what they can complete alone and what they need help with. But sometimes being a good communicator means saying no, which can set up healthy boundaries at work.

What the experts say

In his article ‘When, Why and How to Say No’ psychologist Dr Eric Haseltine acknowledges how difficult it can be to decide between saying yes and no. It’s not always clear cut. But your gut knows the answer, so trust it. Haseltine writes about the physiological responses to stress we experience, and how being mindful of those responses helps us navigate difficult decisions: 

“If saying yes gives you uneasy sensations, tightness in your chest, or belly cramps, you shouldn't say yes. If saying no gives you a twinge of excitement, energy, and empowerment that reinforces the uneasy sensations that go with saying yes, then no is the obvious answer.” 

He goes on to advise that saying no doesn’t need to be angered or negative, in fact it can be the opposite. “You can say it in a very nice way, starting with a positive statement”. For example, "I’m really touched you thought of me for this project, and in different circumstances I would love to say yes, but…”

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Saying no to your boss

This ‘no’ is perhaps the most intimidating. Your boss is, well, your boss. And if you’re going to say no to them you really do need a good reason. You might be overloaded already, you might not be experienced enough to handle what they’re asking you to do, or they might be putting you in a situation you’re not comfortable with. 

One of the most insidious ways to get overloaded at work is ‘Job creep’. This refers to gradual, informal changes to an employee’s role in a business without increasing the rate of pay or changing the job title, and the employee finds themselves performing a role far removed from their job description. When the role you have been hired for has not diminished in responsibilities, you will still be held accountable for that role’s outcomes while trying to juggle the new tasks. Not only is this unfair to an employee in terms of time management and career goals, but it also creates ambiguity and confusion within the team. The key when discussing these issues with your boss is to be diplomatic, and clear about why you feel you have to say no. 

Soft no:

Sometimes, not all aspects of job creep are bad, as there can be opportunities in the new responsibilities for career growth. However, your main goal should be to ensure that the job you were hired to do is done well. Perhaps they need to hire someone to replace your current role if you are being positioned for something more senior. If job creep is affecting your current responsibilities, your management will likely be open to your honest feedback of what you are reasonably capable of accomplishing in the present situation, and make changes if necessary. 

In the meantime, give them regular checks up on where you are, and when they ask you to take on another task, ask them what other responsibility they would like to push down the list.  This will give you the opportunity for a measured and understandable, ‘I can’t’. 

Firm no:

If the request is completely out of your job description, will be ongoing and not the direction you wish to pursue career-wise, then perhaps a candid one-on-one would be the better option for discussing the issue. However, it's best to avoid undermining your boss by having the discussion in private, away from co-workers.  Again, the key is to be calm and clear about why you wish to say no. If they are unwilling to listen,then perhaps this is a sign that you should be considering a different work environment.

Saying no to your co-workers

There are a couple of scenarios in which co-workers may be asking for help. They might be new to the job and struggling with their workload. If this is the case, you’re actually not helping them by doing half their job for them. Offer to mentor them, refer them to other more knowledgeable colleagues, or give them advice about how to work more efficiently. Simply covering their workload isn’t going to improve their ability to juggle the responsibilities of their role. 

Sometimes co-workers become pushy and overbearing, and there’s no apparent reason why they should be asking you to do things for them. If you feel you’re being treated like a bit of a subordinate, a good response may be something like, “Thanks for reaching out, I’m not sure if those tasks are related to my responsibilities, happy to have a chat with management about how they’d like this workload to be distributed.” Given you have to continue to work as a team, avoiding conflict is a priority. 

No one wants to make your job impossible, however, they will not know that you are overwhelmed or unhappy about the work if you always say yes.


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Saying no to your clients

If a client has requests or demands that you’re simply not willing or able to complete, you’re allowed to say no. But remember that you work for them and managing healthy customer relationships is hugely important. Tailor your response to their level of understanding. For some clients this will mean avoiding technical language and an overload of information. But some clients will know a lot about what you do, and if that’s the case, don’t be condescending. Truly explain why you have to say no. 

This is one situation where it just might be appropriate to ‘sugar-coat it.’ You still have to be honest, but you need to be warm and understanding in your response. Oftentimes clients don’t have a firm understanding of the intricacies of the job you do for them.

Offer your understanding

Saying no is part of a polite, open dialogue. If you don’t make it clear that you understand why the request is important, and that you’d be happy to complete it if you could, your colleague or client is going to be baffled and likely pretty annoyed. For example, if you’re being asked to do something which you perceive to be a lower priority than what you’re currently working on, say so. By saying, “I can’t do that right now as I’m working on the schedule for the conference,” you give your colleague the opportunity to have an open discussion on the order of team priorities. Co-operative distribution of the workload is a key component of successful management, particularly for small businesses.

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Remember, you mustn’t feel guilty about saying no

It’s better to say no than to miss deadlines or submit sub-par work. Taking initiative in the organisation and prioritisation of your workload shows leadership and management skills that will surprise and impress your boss. If you’d like to learn more about developing these skills, we have a range of courses in leadership, management and relationship building which you can browse at your leisure here.

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