When And How to Say No At Work

When was the last time you told a coworker no? If you’re reading this, and looking for how to say no at work, the answer is probably “never,” “can’t remember” or “last time I did that, I got into trouble.”

Who can blame you? It’s hard to say no when someone is asking for your help. You don’t want to tarnish your image or hurt anyone’s feelings.

Still, you don’t have to be the “always yes” person, either. You only have so much time and energy to spare, and if you stretch your resources too thin, no one’s really going to benefit in the end.

The solution is to carefully choose the instances where you say no and learn how to say no at work so you say it in such a way that:

  • You don’t make the other person feel bad for asking you a favor
  • You help them understand you have legitimate reasons for turning them down
  • You’re able to manage your resources according to your personal capabilities and goals
  • Your decision to say no turns out to be the wisest course of action after all


When to Say No At Work

Before you can learn how to say no at work, you need to know when it’s appropriate. Here are four times you should pass on a project.


1. You Don’t Have Enough Time

Remember the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 fiasco? It happened because the executives compromised quality to get the units out ASAP and outmaneuver their closest competitor. Needless to say, the strategy backfired on them big time.

If someone asks you to complete a three-month project within three weeks, you are well within your rights to put your foot down. After all, you wouldn’t want to be responsible for your company’s version of Galaxy Note 7, would you?


2. You’ll Compromise the Rest of Your Work

Suppose you can work on that project that was literally dropped on you at the last minute. What about your other projects? Can you still handle those without sacrificing the quality that’s always marked your work? If you’re already juggling multiple assignments, the last thing you want is another one to get squeezed into your schedule like a killer whale in a kayak.


3. You’re 100 Percent Sure You’re Not up to the Task

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take on a challenge, but if it’s completely outside your wheelhouse it’s appropriate to say no.

The other person might say, “I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t think you can do it.” That’s flattering and all, but if taking on the assignment means having to learn new skills from scratch within a limited timeframe, you’re better off passing it on to someone else who already has the skills.


4. You’ll Do the Company More Harm Than Good

Let’s say your immediate supervisor asked you to do something questionable, or even illegal. Would you compromise your integrity and that of the company’s by saying yes?

Granted, you’ll risk the short-term ire of your boss when you say no. However, you’ll sleep better at night knowing that you kept your company’s long-term interests at heart, and you were able to prevent another Enron/WorldCom/Madoff from happening.


How to Say No At Work

Now that you know when it’s okay to turn down a project, try one of these ways to say no.


1. Start Off Your Refusal on a Positive Note

Look at it from the other person’s perspective. If they’re asking you a favor, it means they think that favor is important, and you’re the best person to ask it from. Therefore, saying no outright wouldn’t be a good idea.

Instead, think about the positives of the favor, and let the other person know you’re aware of those by saying things like:

  • “Thank you for thinking about me!”
  • “This project looks interesting.”
  • “I’d love to help out on this, but…”

Make sure you match your words with your tone and body language. Otherwise, the other person might think you’re being insincere or patronizing. Practice making positive gestures every day, even if you don’t feel like doing them, so they’ll be second nature to you when you need them.


2. Be Kind but Firm With Your Refusal

Just because you’re honest doesn’t mean you have to be harsh, and just because you’re kind doesn’t mean you have to be wishy-washy.

Be considerate of the other person’s feelings, but don’t leave them any room to think you’ll eventually change your mind. For example:

  • “Unfortunately, my schedule is packed at the moment, so I won’t be able to give this assignment the attention it deserves right now.”
  • “I think this is a great idea, but I’m not the best person to handle this.”
  • “I know this strategy was crafted with the best intentions, but I’m afraid I can’t move forward with it.”

Notice how none of these statements put the blame on the one asking the favor? When you say anything even remotely negative, use I statements. By doing this, you make the other person less defensive and more open to reason.


3. Offer Alternatives

If refusal isn’t an option, compromise. Think about every possible way to accommodate the favor, like this:

  • “This might take a little longer than three weeks. Can we give it four to five weeks instead?”
  • “Given my current workload, I’m afraid I won’t be able to finish this today, but I can split it into one-hour chunks to be spread out over the week. Does that work?”
  • “I know someone who’ll be more than happy to take this on. Want me to introduce you to them?” Use this only when you’re 100 percent positive that the person you’re talking about can be trusted with the project. Otherwise, no one – including you – will be able to save face if it turns out that person can’t do the project after all.

These statements give room to negotiate the solution you’re proposing. That way, the other person won’t feel like you forced them into the compromise, and may even be thankful that you came up with such a brilliant idea!


4. Brace Yourself for the Other Person’s Reaction

No matter how kind and honest you are, it’s still possible that the other person will not take well to your refusal. While that’s a perfectly understandable reaction from them, it shouldn’t be a reason for you to change your mind on impulse. If you do, the other person will take that as a cue to do the same thing to you over and over again in the future, and that’s not something you want to happen.

Instead, practice these habits to diffuse hostile behavior from others.

  • Stand your ground. If the person wants you to really, absolutely change your mind, repeat your previous refusal as gently as possible. Say something like “I’m really sorry, but I can’t help you with this right now.”
  • Avoid taking their anger personally. If there’s something else you need to work on, concentrate on that first. Don’t listen to them if they start heaping abusive language on you, and don’t think their anger will last forever. Unless they have a reputation for being vindictive, they’re not likely to stay angry with you ’til Kingdom Come.
  • Empathize with them. If the person already asked several other people for help before you, it’s likely they’re already at the end of their rope. Be different from the others who turned them down flat, and say “I understand this project must’ve taken a lot out of you. I can’t take it on, but would you like to talk about it?” You don’t have to give them advice or anything like that. It’s enough that you listen to, acknowledge and validate their feelings.
By saying no to the wrong things, you free yourself up for the right things. Click To Tweet


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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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