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How to Say No at Work

Relationships are key at work. Case in point - the people you work with are likely a big reason you took your role and may be the reason you left your last job. In fact, research shows that 75% of employees leave jobs because of one person – their boss. So, it is not a reach to say that most workers want a good bond with the people they spend eight hours a day. This is one of the reasons that saying “no” at work can be so difficult. At times, declining a project or request can feel like a career killer. However, if US employees have learned nothing else during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the need to install boundaries between work and home. And this involves saying “no.” You can do this while maintaining positive relationships by evaluating your options, offering alternatives, and asking for help reprioritizing.

It is easy to get in a slump of automatically saying “yes” to all requests coming your way without concern for how it will affect other projects and deadlines. It can be just as easy to fall into a trap of always saying “no.” These extremes can be taxing on you and your relationships. Saying “no” at work is hard but needs to be done to maintain sanity, give space for your priorities and not turn into a “dumping ground.” Instead of falling back on your gut instinct, evaluate requests coming your way. This may mean you actually ask for more time to consider if you are able to contribute. It also means that you need to speak up with any questions that can help you figure out how they fit into your objectives, schedule, and other commitments. The good news is that after evaluating, you can respond no with confidence. Declining is a lot easier when you have assessed the situation and can clarify why this particular request in not attainable. This level of honesty will also aid in establishing trust with your coworker or supervisor.

Saying “no” can feel abrupt to someone who prides themselves on being a team player, always ready to step in. An option that can help soften the blow is to offer alternatives. Is there another colleague who you have coached and can recommend for the project? Is there a part of the task that you can achieve that takes less time and resources? Can you offer to help at a later date or time? These options may be received better by the listener because they may take the shape of saying “yes” for something else. The recommendations also help progress the project without you taking on the full workload.

Finally, there will be situations where the project is of utmost importance or offers an incredible opportunity for you to work on personal goals and objectives. In these situations, you may want to figure out a way to say “yes,” but this may mean shifting priorities off other projects. A good first step is assessing your current projects to see if something else can be delegated or moved to a later date. If so, you will need to communicate these shifting priorities (which, in theory, is another version of saying “no”). Before following through, it may be smart to ask for your manager’s counsel to ensure you are on the same page. Asking for support also provides your manager with insight into what is on your plate which may not be front and center otherwise.

Learning to say “no” is a skill that must be developed in the professional world. Everyone has objectives they are trying to meet, and your goals may go out the window if you always jump in to help others. The good news is there are many ways to say “no” and maintain good relationships with those around you. Like any other skill, this takes practice. And if you have been a “yes” person in the past, just know that others around you may be thrown off by your initial negative response. This takes time too but is an important step in you developing this new aptitude.


Gifford, B. (February 24, 2019). 13 Ways to Say No in the Workplace. Happiful.

Hyacinth, B. (December 27, 2017). Employees don’t Leave Companies, They Leave Managers. LinkedIn Pulse.

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