There’s a sinking feeling that comes from saying yes to a request or invitation that rightly deserves a polite no. But offering too many yeses can lead to over-complication, overload, and the risk of under-delivering. Also known as stress.
Demands on our time at work are, for all practical purposes, infinite. Yet productive time at work is limited and deadlines are always right over the horizon. The challenge of delivering an effective no at work comes down to two things. One is knowing when to say no. The other is how to say no.
Knowing when to say no requires having a clear view of your own priorities and evaluating new requests for your time against those priorities. We shared information about how to prioritize new tasks with the Eisenhower Matrix, a simple method for ranking projects and requests as they hit your desk or inbox.
There are some general guidelines for delivering a no at work. Take time to consider the request before saying no. Offer an alternative. Say no in person or by phone. And keep it simple.
But what is hard to find are specific tactics for delivering a no effectively. It comes down to your own personality and the circumstances of the denial. More of an art than science. So to help you identify your own no style, we’ve compiled some ideas for how to express a no at work.
1. The polite-reject. This approach softens the no with a thank you: “Thanks for thinking of me but I am tied up with…”
2. The wrong-expertise. When you’re not sure you have the necessary skills to contribute to a project or request, try this: “That project sounds exciting, but I don’t really have the expertise to help with this.”
3. The stick-to-the-original-plan. When a colleague or client wants to change direction or move out of scope, you can use: “These are excellent ideas. But to stay on [budget/timeline/scope], let’s stick with the original plan we all agreed to.”
4. The fork-in-the-road. When a request conflicts with one of your own goals, try this one: “I would like to help out but can’t risk missing the deadline on my current project.”
5. The respect. This approach is best when your plate is already full: “Sorry but I can’t give your project the time it deserves right now.”
6. The conflict-of-interest. When you’re asked to help out in a way that could create a potential conflict of interest, try this: “I would love to help, but I worry that my participation could create a conflict of interest.”
7. The redirect. Use this one carefully. But when someone else in the office is better suited for a particular request and you don’t have the capacity to take on the task, try: “Thanks for thinking of me, but Bob is a better fit for this request.”
8. The no-stepping-on-toes. When you’re asked to take on a task that falls under someone else’s role, you can kindly reply with: “This task sounds like it falls under Barb’s responsibilities and I wouldn’t want to step on her toes.”
9. The too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen. Some requests involve projects that are already overstaffed, and joining has the potential to degrade the outcome. Try this no: “I know there are great people already involved with this project, so I’m afraid that me joining would only overcrowd it.”
10. The delay. Even when an opportunity comes along that catches your interest, your ongoing work needs your focus. When this happens, try this: “Happy to help, but I am unable to assist until I wrap up what I’m already working on. Perhaps another time?”
Saying no can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s integrity in maintaining your boundaries and not committing to work that you can’t follow through on. Remember, if you don’t think yes makes sense, the power of no is on your side.