How to Politely Say “No” in the Workplace

For many people, it’s hard to say “no.” That’s a challenge in your personal life. But in your professional life, it can derail your career when you keep saying “yes” so that people will think you’re a “team player.”

The answer is not to play it safe and always say “yes.” There are certain times when saying “no” is not only appropriate but necessary. Developing the ability to say “no” can keep people from taking on too many projects and experiencing burnout, among other benefits.

The key to learning how to politely say no involves knowing when you should say “no” and how to say it without appearing rude.

When Should You Say “No” at Work?

It’s OK to acknowledge that saying “no” can make you feel uncomfortable or even guilty. Many people feel that way, but many of them also are afraid to say so. It’s wiser to speak up. It can make good sense for your career to say “no” at work when it’s appropriate.

Here are some of the situations where saying “no” at work is warranted.

It Makes It More Difficult to Accomplish Your Responsibilities

You already have work responsibilities. Then, someone asks you to take on something that falls outside your job description. If it’s something they could easily do themselves, then this is a situation where you need to consider saying “no.” Otherwise, you will have to work that much harder just to get your own work done. It’s not your job to solve everyone else’s problems at work.

It’s Not on Your Long-Term or Short-Term Priority List

Sometimes, you will be asked to work on a project that is not part of your career goals or priorities. That makes it a good candidate for saying “no,” especially if it is going to stretch you thin.

It Does Not Align with Work Goals

You have certain work goals you want to accomplish, typically planned out weekly, monthly and quarterly. It’s important to learn early in your career how to prioritize projects; otherwise, you will get caught up in what others have prioritized for you.

When You Question the Choice

Everyone has a voice in their head or a feeling they get when something is the opposite of what they really think. If your inner voice isn’t quiet, it’s time to listen to it. You may question the project’s goal or wonder why you need to be involved. In either case, you should speak up, even if you don’t say “no.” You will at least get a better idea from the higher-ups on why they involved you in something.

When It’s an Unnecessary Meeting

Everyone gets caught up in unnecessary meetings. It’s the distinguishing characteristic of working in an office. But they are the bane of good work. In a survey done by Harvard Business Review, 65% of employees said that meetings keep them from getting work done. Another 71% said that meetings are unproductive. If your bosses can’t get a handle on meetings, then you may need to say “no” or, at least, question your involvement.

When You Have Additional Assignments

This is essentially the “plate is full” reason. If you already have your hands full with your own responsibilities as well as extra assignments you’ve accepted, then don’t take on extra work.

How To Say No, Politely

If you’ve decided that the situation warrants saying “no,” then it’s time to start preparing for how to respond without appearing rude. Author and consultant Suzy Welch offers some helpful tips to keep in mind as you prepare to say “no.”

  • Make a list. Determine what the person will say when you say “no” and prepare responses for them. Also, make sure what you plan to say sounds strong and professional, not defensive and weak.
  • Keep it simple and honest. Be direct. Don’t try to make up an excuse. Give them the real reason for your “no,” and keep the explanations short.
  • Negotiate if necessary. You may not be able to say no, but you can negotiate and limit your involvement in terms of time or work produced.
  • Be confident. It’s important when you say “no” to end what you say on a note of confidence. If you don’t, then you run the risk of sounding unsure, which opens the door to the person continuing to persist to get you to say “yes.” An example of this is ending what you say with, “Thanks for understanding.” A bad example is ending with, “What do you think?”

It’s important to rehearse all of this before you initiate the conversation. Give yourself as much time needed to get your speech down and have your responses memorized.

Why Saying ‘No’ Is Important

Fear and guilt can keep you from saying “no.” Standing up for what’s best for you helps you do it. So, it’s no surprise that one of the major benefits of saying “no” is that other people will respect you.

When you let people know you are serious about managing your time and prioritizing what you do at work, you end up earning their respect.

Another positive impact is that saying “no” helps to define you in the office. People (yourself included) learn what is and what is not acceptable for you. You want to be fair but not a pushover. Saying “no” helps to establish your integrity and where you draw a line.

As pointed out in Psychology Today, “Integrity is as essential as benevolence in establishing interpersonal trust. It is a requirement for effectiveness.”

Perhaps most importantly, saying “no” builds your own sense of self-worth and self-confidence. Keep all these factors in mind and use “no” judiciously. It can improve both your career in the long-run and your work experience in the short-term.

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