How To Say No At Work [Framework And 6 Examples]

Author: Madalina Roman

So many exciting projects to say yes to and opportunities to grow while trying to build a good relationship with your peers or managers… Even if you realistically know there’s no more bandwidth to take on new projects, you’re way too often the yes person.

Then you regret it and wish you turned down the project.

I’ve been in the exact same shoes countless times. That’s why I’ve researched and practiced how to say no at work and put everything I learned in this article.

Why to say no at work

It’s no surprise that saying no at work is challenging. Some of us have a hard time saying no in many scenarios, let alone in a professional setup. But it all ties to our social nature as human beings:

“One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong. Saying ‘no’ feels threatening to our relationships and that feeling of connectedness”.

Dr. Vanessa Bohns, Ph.D., and professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University

So, try not to blame yourself for saying yes too often, but understand why it’s important to say no at work. Let’s unpack its why it matters:

  • To maintain a good quality of output. Research shows that repeatedly performing tasks that involve threats (not finishing work on time, too much work, or client pressure) elevate your stress levels. So, by not refusing work, you’ll end up trying to manage an unrealistic list of tasks with a rushed, lower quality of output and reduced productivity.

  • To keep you sane and prevent burnout. What may seem like a buzzword ( as everyone seems to talk about it ), there is a proven connection between burnout and a heavy workload or working long hours, among other factors. Unless you sharpen your skills of saying no to more work, too many tasks will creep into your list, and you can be at risk.
    • In a 2022 survey with 15,000 workers across 15 countries by McKinsey Health, it was found that a quarter of employees experienced burnout symptoms, and these were linked to too much work.
  • To prove your leadership and time management skills. Though counterintuitive, when you communicate clearly that you are not able to take on new work and are honest about the time limitations, then coworkers will understand you have a good grasp of how to prioritize tasks and firmly set your ground.

  • To demonstrate that you’re reliable: When saying no, you’re actually building trust with your boss, coworkers, and other stakeholders. You’re demonstrating you’re organized; you know when to commit to new work and finalize it.

  • To stay within project scope: Once you agree to a deadline, going beyond it or taking on new deliverables at the last minute defeats the scope of a project.

How to say no at work in 6 steps

1. Assess the request

When you receive that overwhelming message, even if you feel uncomfortable, give yourself some time to analyze the request. Don’t flat-out the extra project immediately. Do a quick time audit to figure out your workload and capacity to take on other tasks.

Follow up with questions to evaluate the scope and how important that project/task is, and ask yourself the following questions, too:

  • Is it a project you’d like to be involved in?

  • Does it excite you or contribute to your growth?

  • If so, could you commit to it during the needed timeframe?

  • Do you have the mental capacity to handle it?

  • Will it jeopardize your productivity on the other projects?

  • A question that puts things into perspective is: ” How much is your ‘no’ going to cost the other person? (” How will you measure your life? “).

If you’re not sure how much capacity you’ll have, gathering all your work in a central place can help you quickly visualize these and easily understand your workload.

A time-tracking app can help you share your current workload with the other team members or manager and reveal how you’re spending your time objectively. This is an example of a report from Timeular:

2. Clearly state your position (decline)

Once you’ve garnered all the data you need and realize you have no bandwidth to take on that new task, no excitement, and no opportunity cost, politely decline.

Now, if you’re a natural people-pleaser, this is the hardest part for you. You don’t want to be labeled as uncooperative or not a team player. Yes, you also might feel bad saying no.

Hold up, you’ll learn next how to set boundaries and be honest about your workload while leaving the door open.

3. Explain the reason why

It’s important to add background to your refusal. This way, your boss or colleagues will not assume you’re not a team player or the kind of coworker who won’t take on a challenge as it’s not part of the job description. The best way to diffuse any argument is to clearly and briefly express why you cannot take the task on. Communicate clearly the real reason why you have to turn down the request.

Don’t use self-deprecating explanations – these are easy to combat and can come across as untrue. You could say what’s on your plate, what deadlines you have, and how the extra work won’t be beneficial.

The above-quoted book also suggests demonstrating to the interlocutor the drawback they’d suffer if you’d overcommit:

Good to know… Say no by using positive reinforcement ( remember, they thought of you for a reason, either being skilled or knowing you’re executing projects super fast ), so you shouldn’t discourage them from thinking of you in the future.

A good example is: “Thanks for thinking of me! You’re incredible at seeking opportunities and finding the right people. Feel free to get back to me another time, the timing might be right. “

4. Come up with a counter-proposal

Keep in mind that you can reframe your no. For example, if you come to the conclusion that you’re the person needed in the project ( = the only designer in the team, the only project manager, etc. ), you’ll eventually have to perform that task.

So the way you’ll be setting boundaries here can be:

  • Redistribute priorities on your to-do list so that you meet the deadline;

  • Negotiate with your manager some deadlines, and even the deadline of the counterpart asking you to perform the task;

  • Mention that a better solution for them is to choose someone else who could do that job or is even more skilled than you for that task;

  • Offer to help in the project or task, but not by being actively involved all the time (e.g., providing feedback for the drafts, sharing a guideline, or serving as the go-to person when there are blockers);

Once you’ve said no, it’d be ideal not to be seen around the workplace water cooler all day long, as this can demonstrate that you didn’t have a good reason to say no.

5. Prepare for pushback

Naturally, someone will push back if they’re convinced you’re the one who should help them out. So, at this very right moment, you need to hold your ground.

All graphs and tools show how busy you are, so there’s literally no extra time to stretch yourself too thin.

The solution? Stay consistent with your no.

Your client or coworkers can get your reaction the wrong way and even share negative feedback. Nonetheless, the right optics is that you can’t please everyone, let alone control their reaction, but you can influence it.

Influencing their reaction to your “no” can be simply done by:

  • Thanking them for giving you the opportunity
  • Clearly explaining why their task interferes with other work of yours
  • Leaving the door open by offering an alternative.

6. Practice saying no

In the book ” How Will You Measure Your Life, ” the authors suggest practicing saying no as you would practice a skill ( don’t get me wrong, saying no really is a skill ).

Practice saying it aloud, alone, with colleagues, or with anyone willing to support. If you’ve been struggling with declining opportunities or just saying no to someone, unless you practice, you’ll find yourself being a yes person without even realizing it.

So, practicing it day in and day out for a while will eventually make it easier to say to more work. The best part of this process is to ” Listen to yourself ” while vocalizing this need. In no time, you’ll realize turning people down is no longer one of the most dreadful tasks on the list.

And there won’t be any shame in your voice or over-apologizing in messages. You’ll respond firmly, clearly, and diplomatically.

Examples of how to say no at work

How to say no to your boss

You probably agree that saying no to your boss can be the hardest thing to do. This is expected, but just keep in mind the following for when you say no to your boss:

  1. Your boss might not know all you’re working on -> When you get the request, answer by making your workload visible

  2. Follow up with questions for clarity

  3. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the deadline if the request was sent at the last minute.

Potential answer:

” Hi (name),

This project seems exciting! At the moment ( = this entire week ), my focus is to complete the project for Client A, which has a deadline on Friday.

I’d love to work on this project after, though. Is this something that could work? If yes, let’s check in on Friday to set the new deadline.”

How to say no to your coworkers

Saying no to your workers isn’t easy either. Having a good relationship with colleagues goes a long way; you can support each other to gain expertise, or they can even be your friends.

If you learn to set boundaries and gently say no while offering alternatives, your relationship will be safe.

Potential answer:

” Hey (name)!

I’d love to help with this, as I know how important this project is for you. I’m afraid my calendar is jam-packed until Friday.

Does it work to catch up on Friday first thing in the morning? If I can offer some quick suggestions to help, happy to jump on a 10-minute huddle. ”

How to say no to your client

Many organizations have a customer-first approach, which is great, but how do you say no to a customer when they push for you to take on a new deliverable with short notice?

The opportunity is big, and you’re tempted to say yes to everything, particularly as part of a startup and agency.

” Hi (name),

Your new campaign idea sounds great. However, I just checked our workload calendar, and I’m afraid finishing it next week is not feasible for two reasons:

  1. We typically need 2 weeks from concept to implementation for such a deliverable;

  2. If we rush your campaign now, we will do you a disservice if we execute it within the timeframe you asked for.

We really want all of our client projects coming out of our gate to be successful, so I would suggest rethinking the deadline in two weeks’ time. Happy to jump on a call to explain the steps and find a solution together.

Let me know your thoughts, ”

Thank you for thinking of me, but no

Learning how to say no at work definitely comes with practice, and it’s not easy from the start. This framework and examples should be your pocket advantage whenever you’re being asked to take on new work.

Remember, better boundaries and performance at work start when you decide to say no.

Bonus: While researching this article, I’ve seen an interesting video from Harvard Business Review on this topic:

FAQS

A. Is it even ok to say no at work in the first place?
Yes, definitely!
Just as mentioned, there are multiple negative effects of saying yes too often. Let me share my example:
As a writer, on a daily basis, I’m researching what readers need to learn and what they want to know, I interview and talk to our team to squeeze out all their expertise to share it with you, I read research papers, I strategize an email campaign, and I go deep into every detail of the blog, imagery, etc.
And that’s not all.
But… If I had said yes to everything, my main responsibilities would have been jeopardized. I don’t mind taking on additional tasks, particularly to contribute to our organizational growth and vision. However, once in a while, I need to say no to work that seems exciting or helps me grow.

I just don’t have enough mental capacity to take on a different project or time to make it shine. So, it’s better to refuse it.

B. How can I say no without feeling guilty?

Once you practice the framework introduced above, you’ll start realizing there are no drawbacks or truly negative impacts to yourself or to the safety of your job. I do need to mention that you need to be aware of the toxicity of the work environment you’re in. All the advice given doesn’t necessarily apply to a toxic environment.