How to say no at work

How to Say "No" at Work

Saying “no” at work isn’t easy. At least it’s not easy to do without compromising relationships, creating conflict or dinging your reputation. In my experience, most of us get it badly wrong. Do you recognize any of these people?

Dr. No – A colleague who has zero tolerance for incoming requests. It’s an automatic “no” every time, no matter what.

Mr. Yes, Yes, Yes – A colleague who doesn’t have the courage to say “no” but can never actually fulfill a request because they’ve said “Yes” to everything.

Mr. “Talk to my boss” – A colleague who just punts requests to his or her boss to make all the hard choices on their behalf.

These approaches are as flawed as they are common. If you see yourself in one of them, don’t be alarmed, saying “no” the right way, is one of the toughest lessons we need to learn. In certain areas of a company, like Marketing, IT and HR, learning to say “no” is vital to your effectiveness and to your sanity. In fact, one of the most common questions I ask in interviews is “how do you say “no” when a colleague approaches you with a request you cannot fulfill?”.

How to say no at work

I’ve spent most of my career trying to figure out how to say “no” the right way. And I will admit up front, that there aren’t many easy answers. I can’t give you a quick tip on how to say “no” without upsetting anyone. It’s just not that simple. But what I can do, is share the mindset I take when saying “no” and give you four approaches that have worked well for me.

The question for today:  How to say “no” at work?

There is no easy way to say “no”. I’d love to tell you I have the magic formula to push back on people and requests without creating conflict. I’d love to share the perfect email template for telling a person you won’t be able to help them. Unfortunately, that’s not reality. Saying “no” is a delicate matter. Its nuanced. Doing it right requires years of practice (read: failure). I have no magic pill for you, but I can help get you in the right mindset and share some tips that will help make it a bit easier.

Here are my four tips for how to say “no” at work the right way:

1.  Play offense  

The biggest reason employees struggle to accommodate mountains of inbound requests is that they haven’t communicated their own plans effectively enough. They fail to get their colleagues excited about what they are doing, so people feel compelled to come up with their own ideas and ask you to support them. You shouldn’t assume colleagues on your team and in other departments know what you’re working on. They probably have no idea. If you haven’t made a point of getting them excited about your plan, they probably assume you don’t have one.

My recommendation is to spend more time evangelizing your own plans across the company. When people are excited and invested in your plan, they’re much less likely to come to you to help support other initiatives and ideas.

2. No vs. Not Yet

I frequently see employees getting confused between saying “no” and saying “not yet”. The first one is about misalignment and the second is about prioritization. If you inadvertently say “no”, when you are aligned to the request but don’t have time to fulfill it, you do unnecessary damage to your relationships and reputation. Too many of us say “no” when we should say “Yes, but only after I’ve done A, B and C.”

My recommendation, when receiving requests, is to start by determining if you’re aligned to the request in the first place. If you think it’s misguided or a waste of time, then you need to have an honest conversation with your colleague. If you’re aligned with the request but just don’t have the capacity to deliver on it, you can have a much more productive discussion that is likely to do far less damage to your relationship than automatically saying “no”.

3.  Get to the real objective

We often want to say “no” when a request comes in that seems misguided or ill conceived. Too many of us jump to “no” without engaging in a proper dialogue with the requesting colleague. This inevitably leads to strain and conflict. Your colleague feels like you’re unhelpful and you feel like your colleague comes to you with bad ideas. Everyone loses.

In my experience, most bad ideas I’m asked to support have pretty solid objectives behind them. When I take the time to understand what outcome a colleague or group is trying to achieve, I can frequently help them achieve it. Not necessarily in the exact way they had conceived of, but achieve it nonetheless. Instead of automatically saying “no” when you’re presented with what seems like a bad idea, I recommend investing a bit more time to understand the underlying objective. You might end up saying “no” to the first idea, but saying “yes” to a new one. Your colleague meets her goal and you are commended for being helpful and creative. Everyone wins.

4. Share the business context

When I need to say “no” or “not yet”, I try to share the business context with my colleagues as much as I possibly can. Too many of us, just say “no” or “I don’t have time” without sharing the context for why. The perception is that we are not supportive. Sharing the business context for why you are unable to fulfill the request can go a long way to preserving your relationships and reputation.

Rather than saying a quick “no”, I recommend investing a bit more time in context sharing. I’m more likely to say something like:

“I’d love to help you. I totally understand what you’re trying to do and I’m supportive of it. The challenge is, our number one priority is delivering the new web site. It’s critical to our company re-branding initiative and it will be dominating nearly 100% of my time for the next two months. I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but at least I wanted you to know why.”

Notice in my response that I’m sharing business context i.e. the new web site and branding initiative, vs. only sharing my personal context i.e. I’m so busy, leave me alone. This makes it less about being unhelpful and more about being driven by business priorities.

How to say “no” at work – It can feel like a mine field and you need to tread carefully. I hope my tips were helpful to you.

If you enjoyed this blog, you might also like these related posts:

Hard conversations – you need to have more of them

How to work with difficult co-workers

The right and wrong way to make an impact at work

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