How To Say No At Work

Posted May 28, 2019, by Elesha

Learning how to say “no” can totally change your work life. Getting comfortable with “no” cuts out the overwhelm and leaves you free to focus on levelling your career up and up. We’re not kidding, this tiny word is powerful! We’re sharing why it’s so important to say no at work and exactly how to do it; even if you’re a total “yes” person. 

Why It’s Important To Say No At Work

You’ll stay energised and avoid burnout

Burnout. It’s real and has the potential to derail your mental and physical health while sending your career into a tailspin. Being a yes person at work is a recipe for burnout; we fill up our plate with a whole bunch of things competing for attention.

Some of these activities might be career opportunities; like a training workshop or taking on a new, exciting project but too often we say “yes” to activities that aren’t actually our responsibility – or the right opportunity for us. We say yes to avoid letting a colleague down or because we don’t want to seem like we’re not a team player.

You’ll keep delivering amazing work

“There are two things in the world you shouldn’t spread too thin. Yourself and peanut butter”

When you’re trying to do a million things at once, nothing gets done well. Turns out constant multitasking isn’t a good game plan when it comes to delivering quality work. Churning out work that is below what you’re capable of because you’re overcommitted is hurting your career and a sign you need to learn how to say “no” at work.

You’ll put clear boundaries in place

Professional boundaries are not only healthy, but they’re also crucial for smooth day-to-day operations. A team operates more effectively when everyone has clear boundaries about who is responsible for what. Learning how to say no at work (the right way!) helps you establish your boundaries, maintain productivity and keep things friendly within the team.

Saying yes to too many things can blur lines of expectations and job responsibility which quickly spirals into stress and frustration.

How saying “No” can help you progress your career

Overcommitment can ruin your career. Not knowing how to say no at work will leave you less time to focus on your professional goals. If you don’t deliver on the most important aspects of your job, you’ll derail your work standards and reputation.

To make smart decisions about what to say “Yes” and “No” to at work, you need to first get clear on what your professional goals are.

Consider these questions:

1. What are your 3 key career goals for the year? For example – increase my individual sales by 5% each month.

2. What activities bring you closer to meeting those goals? Making 10 extra sales calls each week.

3. What types of activities will move you away from achieving those goals? Sitting in on conference calls that aren’t directly related to my role just because I was asked to join the call.

Use the list of activities (towards the goal / away from the goal) as a framework to decide when to say “No” at work.

Working on activities that progress your own career goals, not other peoples, will have you feeling focused and more energised rather than frazzled with a bunch of random things to do – mostly for other people!


How to say “No” at work … politely of course!

Now we’re clear how important it is to not be a Yes person all the time, here are a few tips on how to say “No” at work…without losing your job or having colleagues hate on you!

Break the Yes ‘auto response’ habit

That feeling when you’re put spot by unexpected request, especially when it’s delivered in person –

We’d love for you to join our 2-hour conference call about *nothing that actually has much to do with you*, it starts at 3pm on Friday!

Your mind is yelling Noooooo but it’s easy to feel flustered and default to Yes automatically because they’re staring right at you.

Replace your automatic Yes habit with something along the lines of  –

Let me get back to on that in (insert reasonable amount of time) I need to check my workload.

This buys you time to properly assess the request and its impact on your priorities.

Keep it short and sweet

If you need to say “No” at work, you don’t have to give a long, detailed response of why you can’t / won’t do something.

Keep it short and sweet, highlighting one key reason but don’t ramble on with a long list of other commitments or pressures.

For example –

I’m sorry, but I can’t help with the report. I have a client presentation due in the morning that I am focusing on right now.

…and leave it at that.

Don’t be a jerk

This is basic stuff but worth a reminder. Sometimes in the middle of a stressful day when we’re asked to do yet another thing, it’s tempting to snap and respond with an attitude.

Urgh. Can’t you see I’m already swamped?! Helping with your report is not a priority. SORRY!

In a tone that totally means – not sorry, get lost.

Be direct, but always be polite and respectful when you say “No” at work.

Offer an alternative

Can you help your colleague out with their request in a different way that doesn’t take such a big chunk of your own time?

For example –

  • Spend 10 minutes with them to brainstorm solutions – and send them on their way
  • Offer to read over their presentation intro and give feedback – rather than write it for them
  • Point them in the direction of other resources that can help

Finding a quick way to contribute without derailing your own plan for the day shows you’re open to helping them but sticking to your boundaries.

If you’ve warmed up to the idea of learning to say “no” at work, you’ll love our article 49 Ways To Say No To Anyone for even more tips on using this small, but mighty word!


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