How to Say No At Work Without Jeopardizing Your Job

Tips for tactfully exercising your “No”.

Writing in Notebook

Boundaries are important as we grow in our careers. The more we’re able to do, the more people want our time.

That’s why one piece of advice seems to stick: saying no at work.

Which makes total sense. There’s only so much you can do in one day. Learning to say no is a matter of necessity, because it’s impossible to yes all the things.

There’s just one problem. Just saying no isn’t always an option. Depending on the environment, it can put your reputation and employment at risk. Even unicorns get fired.

But there is a middle ground. To protect our boundaries and careers, we need to say no in the right ways, at the right times.

First, here’s what you should know about saying no at work.

Before you run off and start throwing no’s at everyone, keep in mind that:

1) It’s harder to use your ‘no’ the less senior you are.

Age and greenness can impact how it feels to say no at work. But sometimes, the reality is that it is harder because of those factors…especially if you’re lower down the chain.

2) It’s harder to use your ‘no’ the less confident you are.

Again, this can be a side effect of age and newness to a role. But it also boils down to plain insecurity!

If you’re not confident in your convictions or suffer from impostor syndrome, then you’re going to have a hard time saying no to others who aren’t this way.

3) It’s easier to say no when you’ve built influence at your org.

Influence isn’t just for senior career professionals! Building rapport across teams and establishing competence in your line of work is something ANYONE can do.

4) Your no’s will always be evaluated against your yes’s.

Your reputation functions like a bank.  Someone known to shoot down everything is going to have a lot of no’s counting against them. That’s why it’s good to balance those out with meaningful yes-work from time to time.

5) Women, this is one of our things.

As the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology writes, women in particular face the challenge of “[being] able to decline a request without jeopardizing personal and professional relationships, performance evaluations, or resulting in feelings of guilt.” Soo, there’s that.

Now, here are some constructive ways to say “no.”

Look. Some people can just say no and leave it at that. If you’re able to do it the Ron Swanson way, then go crazy.

But in my experience, it’s much easier to say no when there’s more to say. In other words, you can rightly shut down an idea without shutting down a conversation.

And look. This isn’t about softening your language or stance in order to appease someone else. This is about smart power wielding.

I’m a database administrator. So when I’m having a no-I’m-not-doing-this conversation at work, it usually looks like this.

1) Not now, because…

Is your ‘no’ a question of timing? Then say so.

For ex. “No, I can’t do this now. But I’d have bandwidth to do it on x date / after we’ve done y.”

2) No, not unless…

Some no’s are a question of circumstances. If there’s something concrete preventing you from saying yes – and someone has the power to change it – then explain that.

For example, “We can’t do option A unless we can get x team to help with y.”

3) No, but….

If something really isn’t possible, maybe there are alternatives you can offer – especially for those technical asks.

Saying no doesn’t have to be bad news for the other party. Treat this as an opportunity to problem-solve.

4) No, not without…

This one is similar to number 2, except it’s more focused on the consequences of taking on the ask.

For example, “I couldn’t prioritize X without completely pushing back the timeline for Y, which is a critical project.”

Okay, but what if I still don’t know when to say no?

First, don’t underestimate the power of a good gut feeling.

But if you’re still really not sure, consider saying no when any of the following are true:

1) There are limitations that are beyond your control.

This could be budget, timing, unrealistic expectations, or some other weirdness!

2) When a task falls outside your purview.

If something isn’t your job (and especially if it’s someone else’s) then make that known to your colleagues.

You should also speak up if you’re asked to do something that is better handled by someone else. It’s tricky to verbalize, but having done this a few times, it’s really helped me protect my time.

3) When your boss tells you to not do something.

If your boss tells you not to do something, that’s a pretty good indicator not to do it!

4) When it comes at the expense of your own well being.

Self care is important. Yes I work hard, and my hours are occasionally questionable. But I know my limits, and won’t drive myself into the ground for a task that can wait!

5) When it goes against your personal values.

This is a delicate dance where politics are concerned. But if you’re ever asked to do something at your nonprofit that compromises your rights or integrity, and the consequences are worth the battle, then shut it down.

We’re finally at the end!

Saying no is a skill that requires thoughtfulness and clarity, and can enable us to be more effective at our orgs. While there’s always a risk to pushing back, we can still do it in a way that gets our point across, without jeopardizing our positions at work.

Share your thoughts!