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Effective Leadership

How to Say ‘No’ At Work!

@awkwarsh Asks…

How do you say no to more work when you have too much?

The MBA Responds…

Thanks for the great question, @awkwarsh!  This one actually took me quite some time to structure and frame some practical advice.  Saying “Yes!” when you should really being saying “No!” is a practice that occurs more often than it really should.  In the short-term, seems like a harmless thing to do but in the long-term it could (and typically does) lead to an enumeration of regrets and unnecessary stress.

Let’s face it – we are human and being human comes with its limitations!  Time is finite, multi-tasking is not a real thing, and life is all about tradeoffs (see here).  Personally and professionally, we’ve got to accept these limitations and learn to organize our lives accordingly.  The following is a prescriptive approach to help you manage these limitations by learning to gracefully say “No!” at work.

1.  Know your priorities 

Before saying “No!” to others, you’ve got to learn to say “Yes!” to yourself.  As mentioned earlier, humans are constantly faced with a huge limitation – time is limited and finite!  Given this limitation, you’ve got ensure you fill that finite asset doing things that are important and valuable to you.  As an aspiring leader, I consider the most important part of my day is the time spent on building my self-awareness.  During the time, I think about the following things: (1) what do I value and need in life, (2) how have I lived those values that day, and (3) what could I be doing better.  Focusing on those 3 simple yet complex things helps me prioritize not only my workload but also my personal and professional objectives.  Therefore, spend some time learning about yourself and what’s important to you, make sure those needs are fulfilled given the time constraint, and then consider the additional things being requested of you.

2.  Consider the audience

Not all stakeholders are created equal – saying “No!” to a colleague or direct report may be much easier than a higher-up who has some level of influence over your career.  So, take a second to consider who is requesting something of you, consider whether he/she respects your priorities, and consider his/her power or influence over your personal or professional objectives.  Taking a moment to consider these notions will not only help you decide your next move but also make it easier to say “No!” (if you still choose to say “No!”).

3.  Listen, Listen, Listen

Before saying “No!”, open up your ears and listen to what is being requested of you.  I’ve been on the receiving end of many situations where the words “I can’t do it” or “I won’t do it” are spoken even before the request being made is completely heard.  As trivial as the act of listening may seem, not a lot of people engage in it.  Take a moment to listen to the request – specifically, listen to what is being asked of you, listen for the time commitment, and finally, listen for how the request aligns with your personal or professional objectives.  Once you’ve listened, you are elevated to a position to say “No!” not to be contradictory, but to be considerate and respectful to your needs and the needs of the person making the request.

4.  Craft your message

After you’ve truly listened and understood the request, and “No!” is still your chosen response, then craft your message to get to a Positive No and create a win-win situation.  First, keep it simple.  A simple “I’m sorry, but given my current priorities, I don’t think I can do justice to your needs.”  OR “I’m flattered you’ve considered for this great opportunity, but considering my current workload and respecting your needs for a quality job, I don’t think I can support your right now.” Next, suggest an alternative.  Alternatives can take many forms – good ones include (1) suggesting somebody else for the job, (2) doing a workload trade (if you can take this off my plate, I can help you out), or (3) suggesting the requestor to limit the request’s scope to something you can actually support.  If you’re going to let somebody down do it gracefully!

5.  Take the time to follow up

Taking the time to follow up with somebody you just said “No!” to is an important opportunity you must seize to prove how much you value or respect them.  Regardless of whether you can now provide your time, take a moment to follow up with him/her and see how they are doing.  You can follow up simply by asking how that project/work is coming along or if you can help by providing any guidance/direction (not own the work, but advise).  I truly believe focusing on maintaining relationships is absolutely essential to not only to achieve your personal or professional objectives but also to propel your organization to success by promoting a congenial work culture.

Saying “No!” is never easy, but like anything else it takes practice.  Exercise the prescribed steps above and you’ll be able to do it gracefully and respectfully.  Hope this helps!  As always, appreciate the great question and look forward to the feedback.


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