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February 28, 2023

How to Say No Professionally at Work

It’s natural to want to be helpful, to be the “yes person.” But this can lead to frustration, burnout, and dissatisfaction. 

We know that saying no at work can feel tough, especially if it means turning down your boss or coworkers. But don’t worry, it’s a skill that you can improve to help you manage your workload.

First, let’s make a distinction – There are some work tasks you can’t turn down because they’re an essential part of your role. These tasks are the core things you were hired to do on a daily basis. But beyond that, you may need to be able to say no at times when it comes to negotiating deadlines, agreeing to outcomes, or taking on tasks above and beyond your main role.

So how do you voice that you can’t take on an additional task or speak up about an unrealistic deadline? 

Here are some tips for how to say no professionally at work:

Practice active listening: When someone is asking you to do something, it’s important to first listen carefully to make sure you fully understand the request. This can help you provide a more informed response and avoid any misunderstandings. So if you’re not sure what someone is asking of you, use clarifying questions to get a better sense of what they need and when they need it.

Before saying yes, ask for clarity on priorities: If you have multiple requests coming at you from different people, you may need to ask your supervisor for help with clarifying priorities before you agree to additional requests. In this case, you could respond to someone by saying something like “Let me check first with (my supervisor) to review what’s on my plate and see where we can work this into the mix. I’ll get back to you by tomorrow.”

Provide alternatives – “Here’s what I can do”: You may not be able to fulfill a request in its fullness, but perhaps there’s still a way you can be helpful. Instead of saying no altogether, sometimes you can counter-offer by suggesting a version of the request that’s more doable.  This shows you’re still invested in the project and want to contribute in a different way. For example, this could involve doing a smaller piece of the project or asking for a longer lead time. Instead of turning down the request, you say “Here’s what I can do…”

Offer to revisit the request at a later time: If you and your supervisor decide you’re unable to say yes to new requests right now, that doesn’t mean you can’t help in the future. Communicating that you’d be up for revisiting a request can show that you’re still interested in being a supportive colleague. You might say “I can’t commit to this right now given other projects and priorities, but can we touch base about it next week to see if I’ve got the availability?”

Say no respectfully and professionally: When you need to say no at work, it’s important to do so in a way that’s respectful and professional. Avoid being confrontational or dismissive, and try to frame your response in a positive light. For example, “While I can’t commit to this right now, I appreciate the opportunity and look forward to supporting similar projects in the future.”

Don’t apologize excessively: While it’s important to be respectful and professional when saying no, it’s also important to avoid apologizing too much. This can make you appear indecisive or unsure of yourself, which undermines your credibility. Instead, try to frame your response in a positive light and focus on providing helpful suggestions or alternatives.

Practice self-care: Saying no professionally is also about self-care. Remember that saying no doesn’t mean that you’re not a team player or that you’re not invested in your job. It simply means that you are taking ownership of your workload and ensuring that you are able to perform at your best. By learning how to say no professionally at work, you can set yourself up for success and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

“It's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” - Steve Jobs

What are the downsides of being a “yes person” at work? 

A “yes person” is someone who always agrees to requests, regardless of whether they’re actually reasonable or doable. It comes from a good place – the desire to be helpful and please others. But when it’s taken to the extreme and everything is a “yes,” it can become detrimental to your well-being, happiness, and career success. This is why it’s crucial to know how to say no professionally at work. 

Work-life imbalance: One of the main downsides of being a “yes person” is that it can lead to burnout. When you say yes to every request or task, you’re taking on more than you can handle, which can result in stress, anxiety, and a lack of work-life balance. This can ultimately impact your job performance and make it difficult to succeed in your role.

Reduced focus and energy: Another negative consequence of always saying yes is that it can lead to a lack of focus and direction. When you’re constantly taking on new tasks and projects, you may not have the time or energy to focus on the things that truly matter. This can lead to a lack of progress in your role, and can ultimately impact the success of your team or organization.

Mistrust that you will follow through: If you’re always overpromising, and inevitably underdelivering, it’ll lead to a lack of trust and credibility. This can make it difficult for your colleagues and managers to trust and rely on you for important projects and responsibilities.

Limiting yourself: Being a “yes person” can limit your career growth and development. When you’re always taking on the same types of tasks and projects, you may not be expanding your skill set or taking on new challenges. This can limit your ability to grow and develop in your role, and can ultimately impact your ability to advance in your career.

In conclusion, it’s important to learn how to say no professionally at work so you can manage your workload and reliably deliver on the commitments you take on. This can help you maintain a better work-life balance, focus on the things that matter, and ultimately boost your credibility and reputation as a professional.

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