How to say “no” at work
We all have productivity challenges at home and at work, and one of the most commonly given phrases of advice is “you need to start learning how to say no.”
That’s helpful, but only to a certain degree. You can say no to everything anyone throws at you, but is that really enough? Is that effective? Of course not. You have to avoid doing other peoples’ work, but you also have to be a team player, so how do you balance it all?
Step one: assess the situation
Your coworker Sally walks into your office and sets a file on your desk noting that a client has asked for an expedited service. While the task is in your job description, it is something that Sally usually handles, but instead is pushing it off on you.
First, assess whether or not Sally is just shoving work off on you.
- If she is, then the “just say no” advice applies, and you can kindly tell her that you plate is full and ask if it is something she could handle herself.
- If she is not shoving work off on you and your plate is already full, politely ask if she or another team member has the capacity to handle it, and explain that you’ll be out of pocket for several hours today off-site (or whatever the valid reason).
- If she is not and you are able to help, if it is good for the company, you should add it to your priorities.
Step two: learn how to be polite
Saying no is not just slamming the door in someone’s face or ignoring their email, it takes politeness to keep the wheels of the company machine moving along, even if you’re a solopreneur.
You must learn how to be polite when saying no. Let’s say you receive an email from your boss asking if you can join the group going to an industry conference, but your workload is too heavy. How do you say no politely? “I would love to accept the invitation to attend the conference, however, I believe that with my current case load, my absence would truly neglect our clients. Would it be okay if I video conferenced with the team once a day to pick their brains about what they are learning and help them follow up with contacts?”
That response not only contains a valid reason why you must say no, but offers an alternative. Plus, it’s polite.
Step three: cut the bull
Look, we have all had that coworker who dumps work on your desk because they’re too lazy to do it. But there is a cliche that applies here and it starts with “fool me once,” and you know the rest.
When you notice a trend, sometimes “no” is not enough. Sometimes, a more assertive response is necessary. Derek has a habit of sharing bad leads with the team after he has cherry picked the hot leads, and you’re the hardest working team member (a trait often mistaken for a being sucker), so he tends to drop things off on your desk, knowing you want to outperform.
You must cut the bull – tell Derek that you appreciate his sharing with you, but that you are very focused on what is in front of you and you just don’t see yourself having time and you would hate for the leads to be ignored. Even if it’s not a lead sharing scenario, simply assert why you are saying no and be consistent. Slip up once, and the Dereks of the world will tucker themselves out.
Step four: separate work from personal
We’re all asked to volunteer at the shelter, spend time tweeting for an advocacy group, help distribute canned goods to the homeless, contribute hours to an upcoming company outing, become part of a committee for this or that, or join the Board of an industry group.
There are endless reasons to be distracted at work, and they’re not always doing someone else’s work, nor are they always negative in nature – helping the homeless is always a good thing. But are you taking on too much?
Not only must you separate work from personal and set your true priorities, you cannot put too much on your plate, or your productivity will suffer on all fronts. Before spreading yourself too thin, set a legitimate goal for yourself, for example, commit to 10 hours of volunteer work each month, or a maximum of two committees at any given time. Keep yourself in line, or you’ll always be saying yes, which in turn says no to what is already in front of you.
Saying no is not the hard part, it is reading the situation and reacting appropriately. Be a team player, but don’t be a sucker who does everyone’s unwanted tasks. Set real priorities and real goals, and avoid stretching yourself too thin. Most importantly, be polite when you say no, and help people to understand why you cannot help.
Do more than just say no!