You know you have to say no if you're going to make progress on what you're actually trying to achieve at work. But one of the most challenging times to uphold your boundaries can be when the request you’re declining comes from your boss, a client, or someone else in a position of authority. You respect them, you have a role to respond to the tasks they ask of you, and you probably work with them pretty closely. So when is it appropriate to turn down what's being asked of you? How do you know when to say no to your boss?
When to say no to your boss
Of course, there are some clear situations when it’s definitely necessary to say no. If you’re being asked to do something illegal, unethical or immoral, for example, most of us would feel pretty confident in taking the right course of action and letting them know that’s not okay.
But what if your “no” is more of a grey area? If you’re saying no to something because you have too many other things on your plate, for example, or because there’s something happening at home that’s impacting your capacity to absorb extra tasks?
Here are 3 times when it's good to say no
Say no before you’re overwhelmed
If you’re someone who’s motivated by feeling helpful and getting approval from those in senior positions, it can be easy to find yourself saying “yes” to every request that comes your way.
The trouble with that approach is that eventually, it all tends to mount up on top of you.
The pressure builds until, whether through sickness, burnout or overwhelm, you can find yourself at breaking point. That's when you have no choice but to say “no” because you’re simply not able to function any more.
If you notice the signs of burnout appearing, or you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, anxious or unwell, it’s time to say no to some of the things on your plate.
“It’s fine for you to ask me to do extra things but I’m going to have to say no to some of them. I've been doing a lot lately, and I need some time to recharge right now.”
Say no when you’re replenished
If you’re asked to do something that feels as though it might not be possible, it’s OK not to respond straight away. It sounds obvious but it can make a huge difference to your judgment, and the way you convey your response. Let the person know that you need some time to see if you can accommodate them, and that you’ll get back to them.
"I have a lot on right now – I'll see if I can fit this in and get back to you."
Seeing that you’re taking the time to consider a request is reassuring to the person asking. It shows you take your commitments seriously, and that you value completing the tasks you do competently.
Take some time to have a drink, eat if you’re hungry, go to the loo or take a few deep breaths. You’ll find it easier to convey the reasons for your “no” more clearly when you’re filled up rather than running on empty.
Say no when you’re clear on your priorities
When you’re someone who’s competent and capable it’s easy to become the office "go-to" for all kinds of requests. After all, you:
handled that challenging client…
unblocked the photocopier…
formulated the perfect wording… so beautifully before, right?
If it’s a task you love, you might be happy to say yes. (If you’re thinking of shifting your career, for example, it can be great development to have the opportunity to experiment with tasks outside your normal role).
But if it’s something that’s way outside your remit, and you know the person is asking because they think you’ll say yes rather than because it’s your job, then ask yourself if what they’re asking really fits with your priorities. Is this part of the difference you’re here to make to the team or the business?
"I'm focusing on [Big Goal] right now, and that's my main priority. So I can't help with [request] today."
Framing your no with reference to your shared goals is a powerful way to remind others that your time is just as important as theirs. If they’re persistent, let them know what you’ll need to re-prioritise in order to help them out: so they’re absolutely clear on the impact their request will have.
Say no whenever you want
You’re a grown woman, and it goes without saying that you can absolutely say no to whoever you want, whenever you want. You don’t need my, or anyone else’s permission for that.
But if you want your “no” to be powerful, effective and impactful – and not to burn bridges or hurt feelings – then it’s worth thinking about how you express it.
When did you last say “no”, and how was it received? Did you learn anything from the experience: either strategies you’d use in future, or something you’d definitely avoid? Share your experience in the comments.
Want to say no with confidence and be respected every time?
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