Leadership Moment

How to Say “No” at Work

You want to be the go-to person at the office – the one others look to when they need a difficult or time-pressured project completed successfully.  However, you know that you cannot say “yes” to every project or assignment that comes your way.  If you do, you risk taking on more than you can handle and not living up to expectations.  After all, over-commitment breeds underperformance.

So, when your plate is full and your boss asks you to take on another project or assignment, how do you avoid saying “yes” to something that you cannot possibly deliver?

Here are some good tips for times when you feel you must say “no” at work:

  • First, understand exactly what is being asked of you.   When you are approached about taking on any new project or assignment, you should have a good understanding of the commitment that you will need to make to it.  Is this a project that will take a few weeks to complete or can it be accomplished in an hour?  Does the assignment rate as a high-priority to your boss or can it take a back-seat to your other responsibilities for a while?  Without a full picture of what is being asked, you cannot possibly determine whether you have the ability to give the project the attention that it deserves.
  • Know what you have on your plate.  You must have a complete list (either in your head or on paper) of all of the projects you are currently working on, a firm sense of the priorities among them and knowledge of each deadline.  Only after you thoroughly understand the current status of your workload can you realistically assess your ability to successfully handle what is being asked of you.
  • Discuss your current workload with your boss.  Don’t keep your workload a secret.  Whenever you are hesitant to take on a new project, make sure that your boss has a complete picture of your workload, priorities and current demands on your time.  Likely he or she is unaware of just how full your plate is.
  • Review your alternatives.  Can you modify your current workload in any way to accommodate the new project (maybe by delegating some of your responsibilities to a co-worker or reprioritizing a few of your current projects)?  Discuss any alternatives with your boss.
  • “No” doesn’t mean never – it just means not now.  If no reasonable alternatives for modifying your current workload exist and you decide that that you can’t take on the new project, articulate your reasons clearly.  It might feel uncomfortable – especially if you sense that your boss is disappointed in your decision.  But ultimately you are protecting your performance and assuring that you will deliver quality work in the long-term.

It’s important to note that “no” is the privilege of the strong performer.  If you have a history of high performance, your boss will respect your “no.”   If in the past you haven’t been a consistent performer, then your boss will treat your “no” as another instance where you can’t meet expectations.  As a leader, ensure that you continuously meet and exceed expectations so you can use your “no” effectively at a time when you need it the most.

Being a leader is about being effective at each task you undertake, whatever it is. A leader is someone who influences outcomes and inspires others.


One thought on “Leadership Moment

  1. Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!