9 mins read

Are you afraid of saying no at work?

Last Update: November 20, 2017

Saying yes to other people’s requests at work might seem like a no-brainer. It ensures your relevance and involvement. It makes you a hero among your colleagues. And it opens you up to all kinds of new adventures and learning experiences.

So is yes always best? Actually, no. This is especially true as you become more successful and no longer need to keep all of your options open; instead, the challenge becomes balancing yeses and noes in a way that allows you to focus on the options you’ve already selected — for yourself and your team.

The hidden dangers of habitual yeses

Saying no feels uncomfortable, which is why many of us learn to say yes reflexively — out of habit — instead of when it’s really a good choice. Over time, these careless, habitual yeses can have some pretty scary outcomes, including:

  • Reduced productivity and potential. Being productive is about much more than constantly doing stuff. It’s about doing stuff that matters. If you say yes to every request, you’re letting others set your agenda — rather than setting it based on what’s truly important to you.

  • A tarnished reputation. Wait a minute. Doesn’t agreeing to do everything people ask of you make you look good? Won’t your colleagues be thankful, and come to view you as indispensable? Isn’t it important to be a team player? Of course. But what if you become so overcommitted you end up making false promises? Deadlines slip, quality suffers and, just like that, your hard-won reputation is downgraded to a single word: unreliable.

  • Burnout. Taking on lots of tasks for lots of people is exhausting — even if it’s all stuff you want to do. You may find yourself skipping meals, scrimping on sleep and foregoing exercise. Before long, you’re physically or mentally incapable of delivering on all of those yeses you’ve racked up.

How to prepare to say no

When and how you say no at work will depend on your situation, the people involved and your personal style. But here are some tips you can try both in preparation for saying it and in the moment when you actually need to say it.

1. Figure out what’s most important (i.e., your top 3-5 priorities).

Saying no is actually a form of saying yes — to yourself and the things that matter most to you. What do you hope to get out of your job? What absolutely must be done in order for your team and company to move forward? What makes you happy? Obviously, these aren’t easy questions. But once you answer them, it sure gets easier to identify requests that could hijack your time and energy.

2. Pre-emptively win others’ support of your priorities.

Sharing what’s important to you with others — and, even better, gaining their support for your choices — will give you a conversation to refer back to in the face of unwanted requests. At the very least, you’ll have a bargaining chip. For example, the power dynamics may not be in your favor if your manager makes a sudden request that will take time away from the things you feel are most important. But what if you’ve already run those things by your manager and gotten his or her support to pursue them? Then you can remind your manager about your earlier conversation, and mention that taking on the new project will mean scrimping on the priorities you agreed on.

3. Practice saying no in safe environments.

Like everything else, saying no takes practice. Try it out in low-stakes situations, such as when friends suggest doing activities that don’t appeal to you, or when someone tries to sell you something you don’t want. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You just have to get comfortable with the logistics of politely yet unequivocally turning others down. For more on how to do that, keep reading.

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