How (and when) to say no at work

Foto van bijdrager Alicia RaeburnAlicia Raeburn
9 februari 2024
9 min. leestijd
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Saying no to anyone can be hard, let alone when it’s at work. And while you shouldn't say "no" without a good reason, sometimes, it's the right thing to do. Saying no not only helps you manage your workload, it also helps you stay focused and accountable for the work you already have on your plate. Learn 7 tips to help you confidently say, “no” at work.

Saying yes to new experiences can be exciting. When you’re traveling, find the perfect job, or you’re offered a rewarding challenge at work, saying yes opens up the world for you in a completely new and inspiring way. But during your day-to-day work life, saying yes to everything is a recipe for rushed or unfinished deadlines. 

It can feel awkward, but it’s normal to say both yes and no to things at work. And there are skills to help you get more comfortable with it. Here’s how to get better at saying no, confidently, while you’re at work.

Why should you know how to say no professionally?

First things first, you might be looking at this and wondering, why does it matter? Why can’t I just say yes and keep everyone happy? To some degree this makes complete sense—it’s natural to want to be a people pleaser at work. And even more so if it’s your boss who’s asking, especially because our job responsibilities are often to support our team’s and boss’s work. 

But here’s the bottom line: saying no is a way of setting boundaries. While saying yes might feel good in the short-term, setting boundaries can lead to a happier, more productive work environment for everyone involved, not just you. But there are a number of reasons to say no outside of your own personal benefits, including:

  • If something is unnecessary. You know your skilled craft better than most. There are times when managers or team leads will ask you to do something that you know is either unnecessary or could even be harmful to your team’s efforts. Saying no in these situations is better for your work and your team. It also shows that you fully understand your work.

  • To prevent scope creep. When you set out a project scope, you and the other project stakeholders decide what deliverables you need to create, and by when. If you start to expand the responsibilities and say yes to new deliverables, at some point you’ll end up going beyond the deadline, causing scope creep.

  • To demonstrate your leadership skills. Being able to accurately communicate is a desired leadership skill. Saying no allows you to both communicate more openly about your capacity and structure your workload so you can have the highest impact. In turn, this can position you for leadership opportunities.

  • To show that you’re reliable. This might seem counterintuitive, but saying no actually builds trust. By saying no to tasks that you don’t have the capacity for, for example, it shows your boss and colleagues that you’re organized enough to know your workload. Then when you commit to something, they can trust you to finish it. 

  • To prevent burnout. Burnout and overwhelm are on the rise, with research showing that almost one in four of workers experience burnout four or more times per year and 40% think it’s an inevitable part of success. Saying yes even when you want to say no can cause overwork, resentment, and (if left unchecked), can lead to burnout.

Create an Eisenhower matrix template

Saying yes kills your productivity

It might seem counterintuitive, but saying yes can actually decrease your productivity. That's because the more you have on your plate, the harder it is to focus and prioritize the work that matters. Here are a few ways that becoming the yes person on your team can hurt (not help):

  • You become less productive and more overwhelmed because you have too much on your plate.

  • You might become bitter or resentful if you’re consistently saying yes when you know you need to say no.

  • By saying yes to this “one thing,” you are effectively saying no to everything else you could be doing in that time, even if those tasks are more important.

  • You’re working on someone else’s priority, which—while important—might not be what needs to get done first.

When to say no

Saying yes is a natural way to feel like a team player at work. But there are times when you should say no, including:

  • When you’re busy. This should be intuitive, but when work gets crazy, sometimes you’re too busy to see how busy you are. Try to say no before you get to that point, preventing yourself from getting too overwhelmed.

  • When there’s a better solution. Delegating out tasks to another contributor or teammate is a great way to say no while still getting the work done.

  • It’s not aligned with your work. You don’t always need to justify saying no. Sometimes, the project or task just doesn’t align with your interests or scope of work and you simply don’t want to do it. If it’s not a priority, that’s reason enough to say no.

  • It doesn’t fit the project. You’re skilled in your craft, which often means you understand it better than your manager. If the ask doesn’t fit your work, feel free to say no.

  • When you start to feel resentful or angry. Maybe you’re saying yes too much and this is a sign to start saying no.

7 tips to help you politely (and professionally) say no

For many of us, we know that saying no can help us. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier. It’s natural to shy away from turning people down, especially when the asks come from leadership. There are ways you can get better at saying no, though. By following a few best practices, saying no will start to come more naturally.  

1. Know your workload 

Before you can decide whether to say yes or no, you need to know your current workload. This will help you to determine what more (if anything) you can handle right now, and remind you of your current priorities. Usually, this helps you to know if you have capacity before someone even asks. 

If you have all your information gathered in one central source of truth, you can quickly and easily determine your current workload and capacity for additional projects. With project management software, you can both track your work and share it with other stakeholders—so they can easily check if ‌you can support new projects. Assigning deadlines based on priority will show you what’s happening now (versus what’s coming up) and help you ‌think through your day-to-day schedule to see if you have any extra time. 

Create an Eisenhower matrix template

2. Lead with positivity 

When saying no, the first thing to start with is a positive sentiment. Phrases like, “Thank you so much…” or “You’re always so great at spotting these opportunities…” can be a great way to show how much you appreciate being asked even though you’re unable to say yes right now. Be sincere. Think about what you actually appreciate about them asking you. Maybe they came to you because you’re the best at what you do, or maybe it shows that they trust you. Before responding, pause for a moment and consider the reasons why they came to you first. Then, use that to share a positive response with them.

3. Politely and clearly decline 

It helps to be positive, but that doesn’t mean you should sugarcoat your no. The more ambiguous you are, the greater your chance for miscommunication. Make sure that you’re clear and direct with your no, so there’s no room for a misunderstanding that might unintentionally cause a conflict down the line. 

Lees: De beste strategie voor conflictoplossing die u niet gebruikt

4. Explain why

Being transparent with your “no” will help your colleagues or team lead understand that it’s not personal. You’re saying no because you have a real reason for it, and sharing that helps build trust between you and any other parties involved. If you’re responding to a manager, be specific about what’s currently on your plate. Sometimes, that’s enough to help them understand why you can’t say yes to their ask. Or if not, it gives your manager the opportunity to de-prioritize other work in favor of this new task. All of which helps to prevent misunderstandings down the line. 

5. Offer a different solution 

Sometimes, you can say no with a caveat. Maybe you can’t meet the current deadline, but you know you’ll have the capacity to complete the project in a month. Or you realize you’re not the best person for this task, so you recommend a colleague who’s more skilled in this area. Even if you don’t have a solution on hand, you can offer to help them find a different way to get the work done. It doesn’t matter so much what you offer, but more so that you show support.

6. Be consistent 

In some ways, this is the hardest part of saying no. It’s natural to feel bad when you have to say no, especially if you wish you could have said yes. But even though it may be tempting, going back and forth won’t help anyone involved. Instead, try to educate yourself about all the factors before you say no, so that you’re confident in your decision. Then, stick to it as much as you can.

7. Practice empathy 

It can be frustrating if, say, a colleague keeps asking you to do something that you can’t or don’t want to do. Or if you have a boss who’s always adding responsibilities at the last minute. Communicating about these frustrations might be helpful, but so will learning and practicing empathy. For example, maybe that colleague is overloaded, but doesn’t know how to ask for help. Being empathetic about how work impacts everyone can help all stakeholders understand each other, improving communication and making it easier to say no (and yes!) when you need to. 

Lees: 12 tips voor effectieve communicatie op de werkplek

How to say no (with example quotes)

When you’re nervous about something, having a structure can help. In this case, you might just want a quick and easy fill-in-the-blank way to say no. These sample scenarios can help you decide exactly what you’re going to say when you need to practice the art of saying no.

When you’re really stuck, you can use a simple formula to frame your polite “no”:

Positive response + decline + alternate solution 

Many of these are a variation of “No, but…” or, “Thank you so much for thinking of me.” As you’ll see, they’re adaptable. You can use snippets of these phrases to piece together your perfect response, no matter who is asking.

How to say no to your boss

This is often the hardest one for people. You might be excellent at saying no, until it’s your boss who’s doing the asking. This is totally normal, and honestly, expected. But you can learn how to respond when you need to turn down your boss.

First, remember that your boss doesn’t necessarily know everything you’re working on. So while they may ask for something, that doesn’t mean they would prioritize it over your other tasks. For example, let’s say you’re working on a project brief that’s due next week. You’re on a tight deadline, and the project involves cross-functional stakeholders who are relying on you. Your boss doesn’t realize how much is on your plate, and asks you if you can edit some new templates for them. In this case, you can respond with a brief explanation that you don’t have enough time this week, but you’d be happy to check in after you hit this deadline. 

“These templates seem like a great project! At the moment, I’m laser-focused on getting this project brief finished, but I’d love to work on these after. Can I check back in with you after the presentation next Wednesday to set a new deadline?”

Remember, they can say no back. If they need the templates sooner, then maybe they’ll pass this project off to one of your other team members. 

How to say no to your coworkers

Saying no to coworkers is tricky as well. These are your teammates, and sometimes, your friends. But when you’re faced with the dreaded, “Hey, can you hop on a quick call?” on a busy day, it helps to learn how to gently say no. 

Try answering with something like:

“Hey (name)! I’d love to chat with you more about this, but my to-do list is packed today. Is there any way we can follow up first thing tomorrow? Or is this something I can answer via a quick email?”

How to say no to your client or customer

Even if you have a good relationship with your client or customer, it’s hard to be honest with them about limitations. But this is especially important in customer-facing roles, when you need to be “on” all the time. For example, imagine you’re trying to create a better work-life balance for yourself. Your customer reaches out after hours with a quick question that you and they both know would take five minutes to answer. Here’s one way you can respond:

“Thanks (name), I really appreciate you coming to me with this. I’ll look into it as soon as I log in to work tomorrow morning.”

This sets a boundary: you’re not able to work with them outside of working hours. But it also shows them ‌you are still a source of support, and you’re going to help them as soon as you’re able. If you want to take this one step further, you can set this as an automated response to ensure that you’re not leaving them hanging while also protecting your off-work time.

Read: Client management: How to attract and retain happy clients

How to say no to someone in your personal life

To help you fully learn to set boundaries and say no, it’s important to bring this practice into your personal life as well. Again, this can be very challenging. We’re naturally inclined to want to make the people we care about happy, so saying no can feel vulnerable and scary at first. For example, let’s say your friend wants you to come to New York for their birthday party. But while you care about them and wish you could go, it’s a lot of money and time to spend for a birthday. You might respond with something like:

“This sounds like so much fun! I don’t think I’ll be able to make the party, but I’d love to plan another time for us to celebrate you. Are you free next weekend for an early dinner?”

No means “No, thank you”

At the end of the day, learning how to say no can help you feel more confident and less overwhelmed at work. It shows leadership that you’re honest, and can remind your team why they made the request in the first place. Following a structure and using these tips, you can learn how to get better at saying no professionally.

Create an Eisenhower matrix template

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