By Elizabeth Exline
“I wouldn’t say no to my boss.”
This statement from Ricklyn Woods, a career advisor at University of Phoenix, may seem counterintuitive in this article, but her point underscores an important reminder about saying no in the workplace: Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not, but context is always important. Woods isn’t saying she would never decline a project or task. She’s saying that phrasing is as important as reasoning.
“I would never want anybody to say no just for the sake of saying no,” Woods explains. “You have to really have some clear reason and rationale for why you are arriving at no, and then you’re advocating for yourself.”
So, how do you decide when a request warrants a no? And how can you say no in a way that won’t get you fired? It boils down to knowing yourself — and knowing what to say.
Everyone’s regretted saying yes at least once. This can be frustrating enough in private life (like when you get roped into cutting out 120 paper hearts for your child’s second-grade Valentine’s Day party), but the situation is even trickier at work. There, the power dynamics of manager and employee can make saying no feel almost impossible.
“Fear is at the root of a lot of decisions we make,” Woods says. Specifically, employees may be afraid of:
“A lot of people don’t think that no is even an option,” Woods says. “But you always have a choice.”
Say you get pegged to lead a project that will involve long hours and learning new skills but that will look good to management (and on your resumé).
Or maybe your team has been tasked with overseeing a related project, and your role involves monotonous duties that fall outside your job description but that will last only a limited time.
Or perhaps team leads from different departments turn to you every time they have a job or task that no one else has time to do.
What’s an employee to do?
Much like the situations outlined above, deciding when to accept or decline an assignment boils down to your answers to three questions:
“It’s probably more of a gut feeling than a hard-and-fast checklist, but I do think it does depend on how successful you will be overall by contributing,” Woods says.
One way to assess whether you should accept is through visualization. Imagine you’re already one week into whatever project is being offered. Do you feel energized, challenged and engaged? Or do you feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed?
One caveat to this exercise is knowing when to push yourself. Sometimes a new task can seem overwhelming because it requires you to learn or grow in some way. Often those opportunities are worth taking, even if they make you uncomfortable. But when something promises to drain your time and energy without providing much in the way of return, whether in terms of career or skills, it may be time to pass.
The other component to this is your skills. Ask yourself if you have expertise that makes you a natural choice for the task or if the job lies outside your specialization (or even below your skill level). That can also help guide your decision.
“If you feel like you’ve checked the boxes, and you don’t really have anything else to accomplish or prove, then that’s a good time to say no and pass it to someone else,” Woods says.
Sometimes, it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts. Saying no to your manager is one of those times.
Here’s how to let the boss down gently.
If you can’t take on a project because you’re too busy, be prepared to explain in detail what’s on your plate.
“You definitely want to be able to support [that reason] by being able to share where your time is being spent,” Woods says.
Try something along the lines of: “That sounds like a great project, and I’d love to work on it. However, I’m currently working on X, Y and Z, which are due by such-and-such date. With those deadlines on the horizon, I won’t be able to give this project the attention and energy it deserves.”
According to Woods, this response opens the door to another benefit: “When you say no in that way, you’re also giving your boss the opportunity to come back and maybe help you prioritize differently.”
Lacking the right skills for a project is a complicated issue. On the one hand, you might be setting yourself up for failure. On the other, you might step aside only to watch a colleague shine where you couldn’t. (Ouch.) Neither of these is a comfortable situation.
The good news? There’s value in sometimes getting uncomfortable. Maybe your situation is an opportunity to upskill and grow. Maybe it’s a chance to be vulnerable by admitting you don’t have the right skills for the task. Being able to admit to the latter speaks to an innate confidence that you have other skills that make you valuable.
When you do have to decline because someone could do a better job than you, be graceful about it. Some good ways to say no are:
Being asked to do something that’s below your skill level can be awkward for a number of reasons, not least of which involve ego and interest. It’s hard to get excited about data entry, for example, if you haven’t done that for five years.
If the request is short term and rooted in an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation, it’s wise to roll up your sleeves and dive in, Woods says. But it’s also an opportunity to clarify your goals and responsibilities.
“For most positions, we all have to be willing to do some tasks that we don’t necessarily want to do,” Woods says.
It’s also OK, she explains, to say something like:
What these examples have in common is that they hinge on honest and transparent communication. If you’re honestly trying to do your best work in your role and add value for your employer, and if your employer is genuinely trying to offer you opportunities to grow, then you can usually arrive at a mutually beneficial situation.
You might even change your mind. Woods has initially declined a project only to discuss it and change her mind after realizing that she could bring value to the task or that the task played a bigger role in her department’s collective success than she initially realized.
Saying no is like exercising a muscle. Some people go to the “no” gym daily; others think about it on the way to the “yes” store for doughnuts.
Like physical exercise, however, saying no judiciously and graciously can help you become a stronger communicator. It can make you feel more empowered as an employee and a person. You learn to set and maintain boundaries, and you become more comfortable in uncomfortable situations (which means you are less likely to say yes and regret it later).
“A lot of times people don’t say no because they’re avoiding what could be a difficult situation,” Woods says. Don’t avoid it. Be honest and transparent instead.
If you’re just getting started in a new job — or with a new outlook on the power of no — Woods has one more tip to consider. Try asking your manager how you can best have that tough conversation.
Woods suggests the following prompt: “I’m curious: If you ever asked me to do something that I wasn’t comfortable doing or didn’t feel I had a strong enough skill set to do, how could I let you know? What would work best for you?”
Honesty and transparent conversation, after all, is the cornerstone of an effective no. It also just happens to be pretty effective at building trust and a positive working relationship. And that’s something you can enthusiastically say yes to.
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