On the Clock

How to Say No at Work

Learning how to push back strategically is crucial for your career.

Recently, Nancy, an assistant regional vice president for a nonprofit, was at her breaking point. For months, her boss had asked her to work on weekends and she’d complied. But this time around, she drew a line—and said no.

Pretty much everyone in the workplace has had to say yes to something they’d prefer to decline—a last-minute project or a strategy you don’t think will work. Or maybe it’s something bigger—a request to move abroad for a role or make a lateral move to a new department. Whatever the circumstance, saying no tends to be hard because we think it may negatively impact our careers. Indeed, one survey showed that 71% of managers didn’t promote employees who were unwilling to take on additional responsibilities that didn’t fall under their job description.

One survey showed 71% of managers didn’t promote employees who were unwilling to take on additional responsibilities.

Of course, habitually saying yes can also lead to trouble. It can hurt your productivity if you’re constantly overloaded, and you can get a reputation as someone who simply takes orders and lacks executive potential. It can also leave you feeling undervalued and demoralized. “You’re balancing the necessity of having a good relationship with your stakeholders against what you really need,” says Phyllis Reagin, a principal of CSRH Consulting. Here’s how to make that relationship more equitable.

Don’t respond right away.

In so many cases, it’s easy to want to go with your initial reaction, particularly if the request makes you angry. But the higher the stakes, the more important it is to take time to respond. You want to have time to think strategically about your answer and understand the ramifications of saying yes—or no. Staving off an answer for a reasonable amount of time—we’re not talking a week here—also can allow you to bounce the situation off a mentor or sponsor.  

Why are you saying no?

Before you decline, it’s good to get a grip on why you want to say no. “It’s easy to have a gut reaction, but if you pick it apart it can help you understand the reasons behind your desire to say no,” says Gabrielle Bill, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach. Is it simply because you find an assignment to be boring? Or does the work involve a level of responsibility you aren’t used to? “There’s always going to be an aspect of your job that you don’t like but have to do anyway,” Bill adds. If it’s that you expect the task to be tedious, you’re better off just sucking it up and doing it.

Say yes while you say no.

If you’ve examined the task at hand and determined you’re saying no for the right reasons, offer an alternative. Maybe you can’t do it in that certain timeline, but perhaps someone on your team can. “If you can provide some other solution, your boss is more likely to be receptive to solve the problem,” Bill says.

Empathize with your manager.

We often focus so much on our own concerns that we forget to analyze the concerns of the person who’s asking us to do something. If your manager wants you to work late, for example, it could be because her boss has been extra demanding lately about meeting deadlines. Knowing that information changes the way you can approach the situation.

William, the treasurer of a large industrial company, was constantly asked by his chief financial officer to make investments he thought were too risky. He knew his boss was under constant pressure to reach certain growth targets. So, when he had to, he’d explain both why he didn’t think a move was prudent and that he understood the stress the CFO was under. “He identified what was really underneath the CFO’s requests,” says Elizabeth Freedman, a principal with Bates Communications. “And then he could find a way to say no without really saying so.”

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