When and How to Say “No” at Work

5 min read
Source: Ottawagraphics / Pixabay

Source: Ottawagraphics / Pixabay

We’re all asked to do things at work (and some jobs and individuals more than others). Often, what sounds like a request is, in reality, an order in the sense that it is virtually impossible to refuse and not risk some significant consequence.

Because most people do not want to be seen as bossy, demanding, or needy, the order is frequently posed as a question, such as, “Can you do X?” Here, we’ll consider your options for genuine requests rather than demands dressed as requests.

When to Say “No”

If you’ve demonstrated yourself to be competent and conscientious, you’ll likely have more opportunities for tasks than you have time to accomplish everything. Some of those opportunities will sound appealing, but is that enough to agree to take them on?

First, ask yourself, what is most important to you to accomplish or invest in at work? What are your professional goals?

Here, “important” might mean “enjoyable” or “most likely to facilitate professional development.” There is no right or wrong answer to what “important” means; the key is knowing what to prioritize among the requests that come your way.

Next, consider costs. When presented with an opportunity, it is tempting to focus on the benefits and not fully appreciate the accompanying time and energy investment. If you agree to this request, what should you take from your to-do list to maintain your current balance?

What about when the felt importance of agreeing to a task stems from feeling as though you owe the person or want to maintain or strengthen the relationship through your service? Ask yourself whether you will end up dreading the task or feeling resentful.

If so, the costs may outweigh the benefits. Is there someone better suited to take it on, and perhaps you are most convenient (or likely to agree)? If so, consider carefully whether, in the end, it is in everyone’s best interest to agree to the request.

How to Say “No”

Even with genuine requests (as opposed to demands), you may frequently agree simply because, at the moment, it feels easier due to politeness or the assumption that refusal will be taken negatively. Of course, that’s not the best reason to take on tasks and a good recipe for job dissatisfaction.

When presented with a request, if you hesitate to agree, you can at least buy some time by having a stock response such as, “I’d like to think about it first. Can I get back to you shortly?” Also, asking for more information may be a good idea rather than jumping to a response. What is involved, on what timeline, and with what consequences?

Investigating answers to these (and other) questions not only buys you a bit of time to think but is invaluable in helping you arrive at an informed decision and one that is more likely to be satisfactory to both parties.

When you rightfully want to say “no,” the wording and tone are important.

First, people are not used to hearing a refusal to their requests for the above reasons. Some individuals even exploit this fact, asking for more than many would see as their fair share of assistance. In these cases, no matter the wording or tone of the refusal, it is liable to be met with some degree of argument or resistance. So, being prepared for those responses is also important.

Naturally, your “no” response will trigger assumptions about why in the other person. Unfortunately, such assumptions about other peoples’ motives tend to be influenced by the effect a person’s behavior has on the person making the assumption.

So, it’s likely that your requester will attribute your refusal to a negative motive. Perhaps you don’t care or are being selfish or lazy. Of course, these assumed motives may not be accurate, especially in your own eyes.

To help ensure that your refusal does not result in denigration of your character in the other person’s mind, it’s essential to provide a reasonable rationale or motive along with your “no.” One such possibility is that you may not have the time, attention, skills, or expertise to complete the task at a level that meets your satisfaction.

“I appreciate being asked (or trusted with this), and I’m concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do it in a way that I’d feel satisfied with because X.” Be prepared for some reassurance that you’d do just fine; after all, the requester is looking for help and wants to secure your commitment.

So, “I think you’d do great” or “It doesn’t have to be done perfectly” are likely rebuttals. Your response might be, “I appreciate that, and yet I’m wondering whether I’m the best person to consider.”

From here, you might offer help by trying to devise an alternative to your taking on the task. Is there someone who comes to mind that you might suggest? Are there alternative solutions that perhaps the requester has not explored?

The theme here is asking questions rather than taking the bait of reassurance that you are the best or only option.

Recognizing that there will be times when you’d like to say “no,” but the result is agreeing to the request, ask yourself what might help reduce the burden. Does the requester hold the power or authority to take some other task off your plate or provide additional resources? The time to negotiate is before agreeing, so being prepared and taking your time to conclude both work in your favor.

In conclusion, like any skill, development requires the three “Ps:” preparation, practice, and perspective (reflecting on your experience and learning from it). Hopefully, the few minutes spent considering when and how to say no at work have provided a foundation for your professional development path in this area.

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