I’ve written a few blogs recently about utilizing to-do lists and your calendar to boost productivity. One problem we often face when it comes to maximizing these tools is saying “no.” It sounds simple, but it’s often very difficult to say “no.” That’s especially true when the person asking you to do more is your boss. In this blog, I’ll discuss why saying “no” matters, when to do it, and how to handle the conversation.
The Importance of Saying “No”
This Forbes article makes a strong case for saying “no” sometimes at work. The foundational premise to understand is that we all have limited resources. Logically, then, you can’t do everything. You have to pass up some opportunities in order to prioritize others. It may help to realize that the result of turning something down isn’t just missing that opportunity. It’s also the ability to give your all to the other things that matter more.
When you get comfortable with saying “yes” selectively, you’ll be able to focus on more meaningful work. That includes projects important to your organization, of course. But you can also prioritize the projects most closely in line with your interests. When you save your time for what matters to you, you build a personal brand. You’ll begin to develop a reputation and expertise in what you do. That’s only possible when you say “no” to less relevant tasks and “opportunities.” Remember not to confuse an obligation with an opportunity. And by the way, you’ll also have more time for growth. If you’re constantly swamped with due dates, how can you make time for professional development?
When you strengthen your “no” muscle, your relationships at work will grow too. People gravitate towards those with passion. You’ll be more enjoyable to work with! Plus, when you protect your time, you’re more reliable. In addition, saying “no” sometimes means you make choices about who you work with. You’ll have more opportunity to build your network if you have the time for cross-team collaborations.
One more note for the ladies. Saying “no” is a critical tool to escape the “office housework” and invisible work I described in this post. To escape the inequity of the workplace, women need to say “no.”
When to Use It
All right, you’re convinced that you need to say “no” at times. But you clearly also want to say “yes” to the right opportunities. How do you tell the difference? This article from the Forbes Coaches Council offers valuable guidance.
The first place to look for guidance is yourself. Listen to your gut. If you don’t feel good about an opportunity, see if you can say “no.” Sometimes, something won’t align well with your own values. You should feel confident articulating that conflict. People will want to find someone who cares more about their project anyway. You can also think about whether you’re the most qualified person for the task. Sometimes, you’re asked to work on something cool, but you lack the skills or experience to pull it off. Don’t take that on! You can refer to someone else in your organization. Hopefully, they’ll do the same for you when they see a project that fits your skills and goals. (This is why you should publicize them!) And if you are too overwhelmed already, just say “no.” It’s not worth the sacrifice to your wellbeing or the risk of burnout.
In addition to these cues from yourself, consider what’s important to your organization. Some things won’t give you a great return on your investment. For instance, you might be asked to put a lot of work into something you don’t think will succeed. In that case, share your concerns. Your time and employer’s resources could likely be put to better use elsewhere. Sometimes, an opportunity is cool, but you have to prioritize something else for your team or organization. You can always explain this reason for turning something down. People will understand that you have your priorities straight and you honor them.
How to Deliver a “No” at Work
Even if you’re convinced that you need to say “no,” it’s not guaranteed to be easy. This video suggests a few ways to handle this tricky situation. First, you can clarify your priorities with the other person. Let them know what else you have going on at work. If it’s your boss, you can even ask if they’d like you to prioritize this ahead of something else or not. Likely, they will appreciate you making smart use of your time. If something is, in fact, important, see if you can get more support. You could ask that another coworker collaborate with you, for instance. That way, it’s not all on you. If you really can’t get involved, delegate (or ask your boss to do so).
Sometimes, though, you have to just say a clear “no.” That’s a struggle for one HBR employee, who created this video to help you out. She asks for advice from Ruchika Tulshyan, an author and advocate for diverse workplaces. Tulshyan outlines a clear process for making this decision and following through. First, thoughtfully consider the request being made of you. Be sure you thank the person for this opportunity. Then, if you decide that you need to say “no” for whatever reason, use that as evidence. Explain what else is on your plate and why you can’t do this task also. If you’re being asked to do something by your boss, you may also renegotiate. Ask about what you should move to the back burner in order to prioritize this. In any case, be clear that you’re not able to take this on as things stand. Your clear communication will go a long way towards maintaining your relationship with the other person.
What If I Already Said “Yes”?!
Now comes the hardest issue with saying “no.” What if you already committed? Now you’ve got someone counting on you. Maybe you’ve even already spent some time on this project. How do you back out gracefully? As this HBR article notes, people have plenty of valid concerns about reneging on a “yes.” For instance, you may worry that you’ll be seen as untrustworthy or unreliable. You may be concerned about the team being upset with you. In fact, your brain processes social rejection the same as physical pain, That’s why you’re so hesitant to let someone else down.
So… what can you do? Well, first, weigh the costs and benefits of following through carefully. Some projects may be worth making a sacrifice for because they’re great learning or leadership opportunities. Others, however, are just not. If you know you need to say “no,” but feel bad for the other person, consider this. Won’t you let them down more if you end up completing this task poorly because you’re stretched too thin? What if you can’t get it done on time at all? You’re doing the most considerate thing by saying “no” as soon as you realize you can’t do this.
Then, follow the steps I described above to clearly communicate your “no.” Give your reasons, and do your best to maintain the relationship. In this situation, you’ll want to apologize for the inconvenience you’re causing to the other person. If you can, offer to help in another way. Maybe you can introduce them to someone else in the organization who can help. Alternatively, maybe you’d love to work on this project, but it just doesn’t fit your timeline. Ask if there’s any flexibility. Let them know that you want to see their project succeed.
If you know this is a skill you really need to work on, you may want to check out this further reading on the topic. You should also set yourself up for success by making saying “no” easier. Try using Pyrus software for your task management and delegation. With task-centered communication and easy collaboration, Pyrus will make saying “no” a breeze. First and foremost, your dashboard will instantly show you what’s on your plate already. With a task list organized by due dates, you’ll get a good sense of your available bandwidth right away. Then, you’ll be able to re-assign tasks as needed and respond to everyone involved in a task-specific thread. Pyrus will help you move forward with the work that matters most.