Know When and How to Say ‘No’ in the Workplace

It’s not easy to say no. Vanessa Bohns, an organizational behavior professor at Cornell University, explains that there is a sociological reason it’s difficult for some people to reject overtures.

“It comes down to this fundamental motivation we have to stay connected with other people,” Bohns said during a 2014 episode of the NPR radio program, Here & Now. “We don’t want to reject people. We don’t want people to think poorly of us, so we are really managing the impressions other people have of us.”

In other words, sometimes it’s just easier to say “yes.” It makes us seem friendly and accommodating. As HubSpot’s Scott Tousley wrote in a blog post entitled, 15 Habits of Productive People, “We’re psychologically hardwired to help people.”

In the workplace, an inability to say “no” when necessary potentially can have greater consequences than a violation of social niceties.

Managers and executives who do not learn to reject some requests are likely to find themselves bogged down in minutiae. Rank-and-file workers with little leverage in a company might not feel comfortable saying “no” to a supervisor or co-worker, else they be judged uncooperative or unaccommodating.

All employees, from interns to the occupants of the C-suite, might suffer a reduction of productivity unless they develop the skill needed to artfully say “no” to certain projects, assignments, meetings and other work-related requests or invitations.

Can someone learn to say “no” when they must in the workplace? Yes, and it begins with focusing on priorities.

When to Say No

The circumstances that might require saying “no” vary. The difficulty often lies in not knowing how someone will respond if you are not able to say “yes.”

Every interpersonal relationship should be judged on its merits, rather than preconceived ideas. Remember that the chances are good that the person asking for your help or inviting you to participate in a workplace event has a good reason, and you should take those reasons into account as you decide whether to accept.

The requesting party has some responsibility here, too – there is power in an invitation or request, and the asker must respect the position of the person being asked.

However, we can’t take for granted that every co-worker or manager will take our position or schedule into account when asking for something. So, while generalizations are not typically helpful for navigating interpersonal interactions, the reality is this: Memorizing a set of diplomatically worded ways to say “no” can help us be prepared if an unwelcome request is made – more on that below.

Knowing when to employ that skill is half the art of it. Here are a few workplace requests that could be difficult to reject, but also might be even more troublesome in the long run if you say “yes” to them:

  • A last-minute meeting
  • A project that is stuck in production for no apparent reason
  • An interruption by a co-worker or manager while you are in the middle of performing your duties
  • A business trip that could cause significant personal inconvenience
  • Working late with no additional compensation (monetary or extra time off) guaranteed
  • A request that is confusing or is unrelated to your usual duties

All workplace circumstances are unique. It takes time to learn how to read co-workers, as well as to figure out what you can and can’t handle at work.

If you don’t understand a request, don’t reflexively reject it. Ask for more information, make sure you have interpreted the request correctly and then decide how to respond.

How to be Skillfully Assertive

As author and communications manager Sarah Fenson wrote in Inc. Magazine, skillful assertiveness is an asset in the workplace.

“Assertiveness can help strengthen relationships, reduce stress, improve your self-image and make you more successful,” Fenson wrote. “So why isn’t everyone assertive? People cite fear of reprisals, reluctance to rock the boat, desire to please others and low confidence as reasons why they are not assertive.

“While it takes honest self-awareness and hard work to realize why you are not assertive, you can learn how to be more assertive and apply it to your interactions.”

There are many advice columns and self-help books available with tips on how to become more assertive, a key asset when it comes to saying “no” in the workplace. Fenson advises that we ask for clarification when asked to perform a task that seems unreasonable.

There have been many tips and advice published on the topic over the years. Here are a few that might help:

Reject the request, not the person who asked. This comes from a 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review, which also advises people to “be as resolute as (the asker is) pushy.” But also remember to be as empathetic as possible; the person likely would not have asked if they did not actually need your help.

Practice saying no to low-risk requests. This also comes from the Harvard Business Review, and it means honing your “no muscles” by rejecting dessert when asked after dinner, or firmly saying “no” to someone trying to sell you something on the street. The more you assert yourself in less-stressful situations, the easier it should be when the stakes are raised.

Be straightforward. Another bit of wisdom from Harvard Business Review, published in 2015. This means employ candid, honest, non-defensive language when rejecting a request. It might be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have the bandwidth for that today. Can we circle back to it later, or can someone else help you?” There usually is no need to provide excess detail, but be prepared to calmly explain why you are unable to acquiesce to the request.

Establish your boundaries and respect others’ boundaries. This comes from Entrepreneur Magazine, and the point is to be open about your priorities and your limits. At the same time, be aware of the limits and boundaries of co-workers, and reciprocate the respect they show you.

Create a strategy in advance. Ask yourself, “How will I respond if I’m asked to do something that I don’t have time to do?” Consider creating email scripts suitable for different situations. One such script could read, “Thank you so much for thinking of me. I appreciate the offer, and I would love to be able to say yes. Unfortunately, I am (booked/out of town/not available), so I must say no at this time. Please don’t hesitate to reach out in the future if you (need my assistance/need help on that or another project/have another opportunity to share)!”

There are many other ways to protect your time and avoid potential conflict related to saying “no” in the workplace. These include:

  • Turn off notifications on your smartphone or intra-office communication platform while you finish an important project.
  • Trade a “yes” now for a “yes” later on a project you might need help on in the future.
  • Do not over-commit; manage your schedule realistically.
  • Ask if there is another way you can help if a request is not solvable with your skill set.
  • Listen carefully and respectfully any time someone makes an ask.

The bottom line: There might not be an easy way to say “no” when you must in the workplace, but a bit of planning beforehand and empathy in the moment can help smooth the path.

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