How to Say No at Work

by Niamh Brady, Productivity Coach

It took me a long time to begin saying no at work. I still remember being asked to take on an extra project in one of my first jobs out of college; I already had too much to do but I felt I could not say no. Instead I “streamlined” everything I was doing and worked a couple of extra hours each week to fit it in. The project got completed and everything seemed to be fine. That was until I was pulled into the office to explain why our help-desk response time had plummeted. I had no idea; I didn’t have the time to pay attention to that. When I streamlined my work instead of saying no, my daily review of the desk got cut. It was then that I learned why I had to say no at work, although it took many more years for me to learn how.

Being able to say no at work is an essential soft skill. Without it, we could end up with productivity paralysis; feeling overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time to do it. And, as l learned early in my career, this results in increased stress and a lower quality of work. Being able to say no allows us to focus on what is important and get things done, without burning ourselves out.

So how do you do it? I have found that following these 5 simple steps works for both small and large requests, straightforward and complex. The entire process can be completed in under 30 minutes, although you will most likely want to spend more time than this for bigger tasks. Note that I say simple not easy; just because it is simple it doesn’t mean we won’t still struggle with it sometimes. However, the more you do it, the easier it does become as you increase your confidence and ability to say no at work.

Step 1 – Become Aware

The first step happens before you are asked to do anything and is the most important step. It requires you to become aware of your workload and how well you are executing what is currently on your desk. To do this you can simply write a shortlist of the things you are working on, also noting the due date and progress made. I also like to estimate how much work is remaining. If you prefer to use a template, then you can download one here.

Depending on your job you could do this for all the work to be done over the next week, month or even 3 months. That will really depend on what makes sense to you. After you have done it once, I recommend finding 30 minutes on a regular basis to review and update it. How often you do this will again depend on the type of work you do and the rate of change.

Step 2 – Listen

The next time you are asked to do something at work, ensure that you are really listening. As Stephen Covey noted, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”, and this can be detrimental to the decision-making process you now face. It can be tempting to switch into defense mode and begin thinking of all the reasons you should say no. Make an effort to delay that thinking for even a short while to listen and fully understand what you are being asked to do.

Step 3 – Reflect

The third step is to give yourself an opportunity to reflect before deciding. Depending on the type of work you do and what you are being asked to do, this could be as little as 10 minutes or a couple of days. Whatever it is, if you are taking more than a couple of hours it is good to let the person know what you are doing and when they can expect a response.

What if the person presses you for an answer immediately? This is an opportunity to explain that you don’t want to say yes prematurely and not be able to deliver or say no too quickly before checking whether you can help.

As part of this reflection period you can take out your work list and ask yourself ‘do I have enough energy to take this on with everything else?’. Notice I did not say time and that is because we lie to ourselves about time. Many people will work an extra 15 minutes rather than say no. But do this time and time again and it all adds up. So, take this moment to listen to yourself and see if you can say yes.

Step 4 – Clarify

If the answer is not clear, then you may need to take another look at both your workload and what is being asked. There are 5 questions I typically ask; this might be another conversation with the person making the request depending on your situation.

  1. Confirm that it is an important task, and not simply something which is urgent but not important. Question to Ask – “What will happen if this doesn’t get done?”

  2. Find out where the deadline is coming from. Does all the work need to be completed by that day, or would part of it suffice? Question to Ask – “If I could only do one part by Friday, which is the most important?

  3. If there are other people on your team that could also do the job, it is worth finding out why it is you being asked. Question to Ask – “If I can’t do this, is there someone else who can?

  4. Identify how much work needs to be completed. The amount of work to be done could change this from a 3-day task to a half day, which is a quite different scenario to consider. Question to Ask – “What work has already been completed for this?”

  5. Is this more important than what you had planned to do? Question to Ask – “If I do this, then X won’t get done this week. Which is more important?

Step 5 – Say No

The final step in the process is saying yes or no. If the answer is no, how do you say it?

Knowing that you have followed the previous steps will give you more confidence in saying no. At this stage you are aware of your workload, fully understand what is being asked, have reflected on whether you can do it and questioned the impact of not saying yes. Typically, a clear, brief explanation will suffice and if further conversation is needed you can refer back to the output of the previous steps to support you.

At this point I should mention that the answer at the end of this process isn’t always no. Sometimes there will be delegation, or even deletion, of other tasks to create space for you to take it on. Other times you may say yes in a reduced capacity or offer an alternative way of helping. Regardless of the answer that you arrive at, following these steps will allow you to be more confident in your response.

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