When to say no at work and how to do so gracefully

You’ve got a mountain of work piling up on your desk, emails that you’ve been putting off replying to and are suddenly asked by your line manager to pick up a project that needs to be done by the end of the day.

On the one hand, you’ve ZERO TIME for projects to be dropped in your lap, but on the other hand, you want to come across as being a team player, willing to work with others to get the job done.

And, especially if you’re a woman, you also don’t want to come across as being rude or difficult. You don’t want to speak forcefully and speak your mind as you’re less likely to change your line manager’s mind, and more likely to be perceived as emotional and untrustworthy. 

You’ve got that difficult decision between being so stressed and stretched, that you don’t perform a good job on anything you’ve been assigned to do and that saying no can protect you in the long run from burnout and overload.

While saying yes helps you cement your reputation within the organisation and gain more responsibilities over time.

And for most of us, saying no does not come easily or naturally. 

So how do you deal with this conundrum? When should you be saying no?

1. When it doesn’t accomplish a key goal.

Keep a running list of your key goals (this could be taken from your most recent performance appraisal) and the companys'. If you feel as though the task isn’t accomplishing one of these, you can state to your line manager that it won’t necessarily help the company’s bottom line and their goals, and would take you away from tasks that will move the company forward.

You can always volunteer to put the task on the back burner and attend to it when you do have that precious moment. 

2. The task doesn’t fall under your job description.

If there’s someone you think is more qualified to do the task you could suggest that they would be a better fit. Demonstrate that you are committed to your role and value your time by having a deep understanding of your jobs description and explaining that it would take you away from what you are paid to do. 

You can offer to do tasks that are outside your job description, but keep in mind that they should be beneficial to you in the long run and not take away from what you are currently working on. 

3. You disagree with what’s been asked of you and the decision that’s been made.

If you think that the decision to take on the project is a poor one, explain your point of view. 

Is it that you don’t think it’s going to accomplish anything in the long run? That it could be done more efficiently? 

By explaining your position, you could gain an understanding of each side and come to a mutual solution that’s beneficial to both of you. Plus it would show off so many of your positive attributes: the fact that you’re a team player and want to help; can stand up for what you believe in, and can listen to other people’s points of view. 

4. You wouldn’t be able to deliver.

Whether there’s not enough time, it’s not your skillset or it’s just too much to ask, taking on something that you know you just can’t deliver and will set you up for failure is a BIG red flag. 

It’s a chance for the company to let you go if they ever need an excuse and you do not want to fall into that trap. 

5. You’ve been given an unrealistic deadline.

You may want to accomplish the task they’ve asked of you, but you can’t do it in the timeframe they’ve suggested. 

By speaking to your line manager about this and explaining the situation, you can show your point of view and your commitment to the task. It may be that you can come to some solution by offering some of your other projects to someone else, talking through your priorities and making space, or letting this project take a back seat for when you’ve got a moment in your schedule.  

6. The task is ineffective.

Did you know, Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that 65% of senior managers thought meetings interfered with work and 71% said they were unproductive and inefficient.

What’s your view on meetings? You may believe, like those surveyed in HBR, that sacrificing your own time and well-being for meetings is best for the company. However, it induces a collective toll on productivity, focus and engagement cost the company more time and money in the long run. 

So next time you’re called into a meeting or put on a task that you think is going to be ineffective, and may even be detrimental to your work, think again.

7. You find yourself routinely responding to messages and emails when you are not at work.

You should not have to work off the clock, and respond immediately! Downtime is proven to improve your productivity, motivation, immunity, physical and mental health, and memory amongst other things. So what’s best for you is also best for the company. 

So how do you say no to tasks in a manner that earns you respect and doesn’t hold you back in your career?

  1. Suggest alternatives. As stated, it may be that there’s someone better suited to the task who will get it done more effectively and efficiently, or that giving the task to you would mean that you’re setting yourself up for failure. 
  2. Be honest. You might well find that if you are honest about your situation, you’ll be able to come up with a workaround together, whether it’s giving some of your tasks to a colleague if you are swamped, or extending the deadline.
  3. Avoid being vague. This means that once your decision is made, your line manager can come up with an alternative solution quickly and effectively. 
  4. Be gracious. Thank your line manager for thinking of you and your skillset in completing a task.

And remember.

Saying no is vital to your success and the companys'. 

You only have so much time and resources, and to do a good job in your position means focusing primarily on the tasks that will move both you and the company forward to reach your goals. 


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