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Why, When and How to Say No at Work

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

Its Time To Say Yes to Saying No

In my advertising technology work, I’ve seen first hand how workplace cultures that value ‘yes men’ and customer obsession over everything else, can foster an environment where it becomes impossible to say the word ‘no.’ While saying ‘yes’ implies ambition, friendliness, and collaboration, saying ‘no,’ in my experience, can connote a difficult, combative, and mean nature—even if that’s not the intention.

This struggle can be intensified for black women, who are often seen as bossy, stubborn, and angry. I have personally struggled with this stereotype in my own work. One time, after declining to take over a spreadsheet from a separate team, my manager expressed to me that my co-worker thought my behavior in the meeting was aggressive.

At the time, I was responsible for interviewing, hiring, and onboarding a team of operational specialists in addition to my duties as a sales planner. And in the meeting, I explained to my co-worker that because of this, I wasn’t able to take on additional work, but I would check-in if my plate cleared up. When I asked my manager what she would have done differently, she paused and said, “Actually, I would have responded the same way. I’ll talk to her and see why she felt that way.”

While it was hard to say no at first and uncomfortable hearing my co-worker’s feedback, it helped me become a better advocate for myself and time.

Read on for tips about why, when, and how to say no at work.

Why To Say No

As someone who has struggled to say no to her coworkers and boss in the past, I understand that it is not easy.

Saying yes, even to small things, gave me a sense of responsibility, duty, and importance. However, it also created anxiety, added stress, and a feeling of powerlessness, ultimately taking a toll on my mental health and quality of my work.

With practice, I learned to say no and stop overextending myself. I reminded myself that I could say no and by overextending myself I was doing a disservice to myself and those I was helping.

When to Say No

When you receive a request from a colleague or your boss that is outside of the scope of your job, assess the ask and decide if and how it will impact your time, energy, and interest. While the obvious benefit is helping a coworker, ask yourself the following:

  • Does taking this on push back my projects?

  • Will this contribute to my goals and responsibilities?

  • Are these types of requests, shared across the team (Does this person consistently go to me for this type of administrative requests?)

The case for saying no is really about setting boundaries and aligning yourself with more rewarding tasks. This does not mean you should say no to everything, simple things that you do not want to do, or tasks that are required as part of your day-to-day role.

More importantly, saying no does not mean you cannot extend your help in the future.

How to Say No

No one wants to be known as the person who always says no or misses out on future opportunities after declining to help. However, it also wouldn’t be great to be known as the person who bites off more than she can chew. Balance by only accepting if you have time and can add value. These are some replies I’ve used to politely say no:

  • "No, I can’t do it” or “I don’t have the bandwidth" – Decline without saying no and giving the requester a reason.

  • "I’m only able to help with this ____" - Partially agree to help with only a portion of the project.

  • "I’m happy to order lunch for the group this time, but let’s create a process for this for future events"- Accept to help out and encourage the requester to figure out how the task is shared moving forward.

  • "Is this urgent? I can have this done by the end of week" - ask for an extension. This response gives the requester an option to assist you with other work.

  • "Should I work on this instead of _____" - Ask for help prioritizing. If the ask is from your boss, ask how you should prioritize your other work and assignments.

  • "Let me get back to you" - This allows you to assess the work before committing.

Whichever variations you choose, try not to simply say ‘no’ or be passive aggressive. Also, if you can, try to decline in person. Often times, tones are misread over email.

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