There are two groups of people in the workforce: those who can easily say no, and the rest of us. Saying no can be hard, especially early on in your career or when you are new to a job. It’s easier to say yes and be miserable later than to say no and be uncomfortable now. But being able to say no is critical. Not only does it keep you sane; it also establishes boundaries for a better work-life balance. Saying no can also keep your performance at peak level. If you aren’t good at saying no, here are some ideas about why and how you can say no.
Why Saying No Is Hard
First, let’s look at why it is so hard for some people to say no. Research has shown that saying no causes the brain to have a negative response. [i] Because of this, many people simply say yes to more work, even if they don’t have the ability to do it. This inability to say no can lead to resentment, burnout, and stress.[ii] That all-in attitude can make you hesitate to say no out of fear. If you say no, you may look “bad.” Will saying no be perceived as you being incapable of the task, or unable to handle the responsibility? Along with the fear of saying no comes the guilt associated with it. Most people want to help and to do good work, but saying no can feel like you aren’t being a team player or are letting someone down. Understanding these negative brain responses will help you be able to say no when the time comes.
Why You Should Say No
There are the obvious reasons to say no to something—you don’t have the time, it’s not your responsibility, or the project is above/below your experience level. But there are less obvious reasons, too. If someone asks you to perform a task, ask yourself “Is this a career builder or is this a career distractor?” Tasks like sitting on a committee or planning an office function can initially seem like a career building opportunity, but are they really? If those assignments are not valued at your job, performing them takes time away from your actual work. Take the time to evaluate the situation and weigh whether taking on this additional work is worth the time, energy, and effort. Being able to say no can build self-confidence and save your sanity. It can also help you establish healthy boundaries, which can benefit your wellbeing and reduce burnout.[iii]
Another reason to say no is that you really don’t have the capacity to handle more work. People often underestimate the actual time it will take to complete a project or task. Many people are so bad at it, there’s even a name for it—the planning fallacy.[iv] This phenomenon occurs when you are overly optimistic about how much of your future time the work will take. You think you can get it done faster, so you underestimate the time required. To combat the planning fallacy, think about how long it would take someone else to complete the task. Research has found that if you think of someone else doing the work, you will more realistically estimate the time it would take.[v] Once you have a more realistic estimate of the time required, you can make a better decision about if you can handle it or not.
Being able to say no also helps when you are on PTO or are at home sick. Remote work really blurred the lines on availability since people were never far from the “office.” Now that some are working a hybrid or fully in-person schedule, it’s important to reset those boundaries when you are legitimately off the clock. Taking time away from the office is important for your mental health and wellbeing. Trying to work while ill can lead to unnecessary mistakes and can prolong your illness.[vi] Tending to your health will take less away from your workload than working through it.
Ways to Say No
If you are approached by a higher up armed with a project, take the time to talk with them about your current workload. Will this new task interfere with completing your current assignments? If so, ask them what project you should sideline or hand off to someone else. With this approach, you technically aren’t telling your boss no; rather, you are communicating to them that you only have so much capacity. Ideally, they either will help you prioritize your work or will find someone to take something off your plate. Working together to solve the capacity issue is a good way to build rapport and to set boundaries, albeit soft ones.
If you and your boss cannot find a way to fit the new work into your schedule, you can always help them by suggesting a replacement. Maybe it’s a newer associate that needs the experience, or someone who is better suited to take on the matter. By making a pointed suggestion of who may be able to help, you are showing your boss you care that the work gets done, even if you are not the one to do it.
If you feel you must outright say no, make sure that you are up front about the reasons why. You do not want to downplay why you are saying no by trying to soften the blow. Being straightforward disallows your reasons from being brushed aside or ignored. You can also offer to take on smaller tasks related to the project if you have time.
Sometimes you will need to plan ahead to avoid having to say no. If you have a vacation coming up, tell people about it! Let your colleagues know about your plans and ask them to cover for you while you are away. Offer to do the same when it comes to their time off. If you absolutely must work, make sure you limit your involvement as much as possible. Tell the boss you can do the necessary task, but that the rest will either have to wait until you return or be given to someone else. Follow the same examples when you are home sick. Before the pandemic, many people worked during illnesses out of necessity or because of office expectations. Now, taking time away to get better has less of a stigma than it did pre-2020.
Other Ways to Respectfully Say No
The important thing to remember when you have to say no is to deliver the message respectfully. Here are some suggestions of how to say no that won’t burn any bridges.
- I’m sorry, I don’t have the ability to take on that task right now.
- That sounds interesting, but I don’t have the skills/ability to complete that for you.
- Unfortunately, I can’t help, but (insert name) may have more time to assist you.
- My workload is at capacity right now.
- Thank you for thinking of me for this project, but your deadline conflicts with my other assignments.
- Once my schedule lightens up, I will reach out to see if you need help on any other matters.
Practice makes perfect, so you need to practice saying no to be comfortable with doing it. If you are having difficulty saying no, try the “sandwich method.”[vii] Placing a no in between two positive statements can come across more natural and less jarring. Start off small, and gradually you will be able to say no with less fear and guilt. After a while, the negative emotions associated with saying no will be replaced with more positive outcomes in your life—better work-life balance, less stress, and better work performance.
[i] Bojic, A. (2022, July 8). How to Say ‘No’ Professionally. Pumble. https://pumble.com/blog/say-no-professionally/
[ii] Barbazzeni, B. (2022, April 21). The Power of Saying ‘No’: From Psychology to Neuroscience. ExoInsight. https://insight.openexo.com/the-power-of-saying-no-from-psychology-to-neuroscience/
[iii] (2019, August 9). The People Pleaser’s Guide To Saying “No!” – How To Set Boundaries At Work That Gain Respect… Without The Guilt! Inspiring Leadership Now. https://www.inspiringleadershipnow.com/how-to-set-boundaries-at-work/
[iv] Fenton, K. (2017, April 17). Under Budget and Over Time: The Planning Fallacy is Why You’re Always Behind Schedule. CogBlog. https://web.colby.edu/cogblog/2017/04/17/under-budget-and-over-time-the-planning-fallacy-is-why-youre-always-behind-schedule/
[v] Buehler, R., et al. (2012, June 5). Inside the Planning Fallacy: The Causes and Consequences of Optimistic Time. Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/abs/heuristics-and-biases/inside-the-planning-fallacy-the-causes-and-consequences-of-optimistic-time-predictions/CA157EF59A218C2B906A1795089E7650
[vi] Nield, D. (2022, April 25). There's at Least One Major Reason Why People Show Up to Work Sick, Study Finds. Science Alert. https://www.sciencealert.com/study-highlights-a-major-reason-why-people-continue-to-work-when-they-re-ill
[vii] Fagan, A. (2021, November 2). The Power of Saying No. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-matters-menninger/202111/the-power-saying-no