“No” is one of the most common first words for English-speaking babies, but as working adults, it can be one of the hardest things to say—especially at the office.
Saying no doesn’t have to be scary, especially when it’s warranted. In fact, to ensure that you’re able to give your all to projects without feeling burnt out or stretched too thin, saying no is an important part of managing your work (and your relationships with co-workers).
Here are three scenarios where it’s totally okay to say "no," plus advice on what to say instead.
When you get an assignment from someone other than your supervisor
We all want to be helpful at work, so it’s tempting to say “yes” in this situation, especially if you work in a small organization where there’s a culture of pitching in. But if you’re being asked to take on a large project, it’s a good idea to check with your supervisor first.
For example, your supervisor may want you to decline the assignment if they’re about to give you an important project that relates directly to your duties. Or if this co-worker has a habit of coming to you with projects instead of going to others on their team, that’s something your supervisor may want to know.
How to say no: “Thanks for reaching out. Let me check with [SUPERVISOR'S NAME] to see if I’ll be able to handle that. I can get back to you by the end of the week. Does that work for you?”
You may also suggest that for future requests, it would be helpful to simply CC your direct supervisor on the email (if email is how these types of requests and assignments generally come in).
Why this works: You’re acknowledging the request, explaining the step you need to take before responding, and letting them know when they can expect an answer. This will also help you keep your manager in the loop so they can more effectively "gate keep" for you.
If you’re not sure why your co-worker approached you for this assignment, it may be a good idea to ask them why they thought of you. That information can help your supervisor determine if it’s an appropriate task for you, or if someone else at the organization would be better suited.
When you have too much on your plate
Assuming you’re managing your time well, the ability to recognize and acknowledge when you have more work than you can handle is an important professional skill. It means you understand your limits, which will help minimize burnout. It also shows your manager and co-workers that you’re willing to speak up and advocate for yourself.
How to say no: “If I take on [X], I’m concerned that I’ll have too much on my plate to do a good job while juggling existing and ongoing projects. If you feel that [X] is an important project for me, can we chat about what I may be able to de-prioritize to make room for it?”
Why this works: It shows you’re being thoughtful about your time and considering your whole workload. It can also give your manager important information about your workload. For example, if you don’t have capacity for this new project because you’re spending 40% of your time on a project that they thought would take 15% of your time, that’s something they need to know.
Pro Tip: You don’t have to wait for a new assignment to talk to your boss about a heavy workload—check out our templates and tips for managing up at work.
When you’re not the right person to take on the task
Before you decline a task that you don’t feel qualified for, examine your feelings. Are you sure you’re not the best person for the job, or are you letting impostor syndrome hold you back? Is it possible that this task will take you out of your comfort zone in a way that stretches your skills or allows you to branch into a new area you’ve been wanting to try? If so, consider giving it a try!
If you still feel like you’re not the best person for the job, it’s okay to say no.
How to say no: “I don’t think I’m the best person to lead this project because [fill in the blank with the reason, such as lacking experience in a critical area]. Would you like me to think about who might be a better fit? And if there’s another way I can support this work, let me know.”
Why this works: You’re explaining why you’re declining the request, which demonstrates that you’ve thoughtfully considered it, and you’re offering a solution. You’re also offering to support the project, which shows that you aren’t simply trying to pass the buck.
Pro Tip: If you can’t take on the task because you lack a certain skill that’s available through training, you can use this opportunity to ask your organization to sponsor you for that training.
Reclaiming the word “no”
“No” is only a scary word if we allow it to be scary. When you face a scenario where saying no feels like the right thing to do, remember these tips:
- Be thoughtful about why you’re saying no
- Explain your reasoning
- Offer alternative solutions, where possible
For effective communication between team members, it’s helpful to practice professional communication methods. Check out our post, 5 Email Etiquette Tips for More Professional Communications, for helpful tips and advice on how to email your co-workers.