Saying No in the Workplace – When, Why and How to Do It

Saying No in the Workplace – When, Why and How to Do It

Ella Patenall

Updated July 8, 2022 Updated July 08

Early in our careers, we often feel the need to say yes. Yes to extra hours. Yes to optional meetings. Yes to organizing surprise birthday parties for colleagues we’ve never met.

The list goes on.

And while those yesses can help ourselves and those around us, sometimes they can be a hindrance to our wider careers. So when we’re asked to complete tasks that feel are unmanageable, unsuitable or inappropriate, we need to know how to say no.

But in a culture of ‘yes first, questions later’, this is easier said than done. Here’s when, why and how to say no in the workplace. 

Why we say yes

According to a 2015 LinkedIn study, nearly 60 percent of millennials feel the need to say yes without a second thought. But why? Here are a few reasons.

Fear of turning down responsibility

We’re always looking to prove ourselves, especially when starting a new job. And refusing responsibility can feel like a backwards step.

Fear of disappointing others 

So much of the modern workplace relies on great teamwork. And we all want to feel valued and respected by our colleagues. Saying no can feel like a violation of team principles.

Established hierarchy  

It’s a long standing and much maligned feature of the workplace. Hierarchy. So ingrained is it into our psychology that we have an innate need to say yes to those higher up than us.

When to say no

Here’s the thing.

For the most part, saying yes demonstrates positivity and a willingness to engage but there are some occasions when it’s fine to say no.

If it conflicts with your values and beliefs

No task should force you to compromise your values and beliefs. Remember, if someone doesn’t respect your values, they don’t respect you.

If you’re not right for a role or responsibility

While our careers grow by challenging ourselves, there are some roles that are just too unsuitable. If it feels logistically or technically impossible for your skillset, there’s nothing wrong with turning it down.

If the task or the company might suffer

We all want to perform every task to the best of our ability. So if you feel a task will suffer as a result of your hectic schedule, saying ‘no’ can demonstrate good time management skills.

How to say no

Saying no may sound easy but in practice, it’s a lot harder. Here are a few tips to bear in mind.

Be polite

Though you’re saying no, it’s important to thank them for offering you the opportunity.

Be diplomatic

Calmly state your reasons for saying no or ask which other tasks you can put to one side to make way for this one. 

Offer an alternative

Simply saying no without offering a solution is unprofessional. So always be prepared to present an alternative option.

Why say no?

Research from the University of California suggests that struggling to say no can make us more prone to burnout, stress and even depression.

And finding a few choice moments to practice rejection demonstrates restraint, independent thinking and can paint you as a more rounded employee.

So while we’re told that saying yes will accelerate our careers, actually, the opposite may be true.

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This article was originally published in January 2019 . It was last updated in January 2020

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