When I first started out at work, I answered every request with a ‘yes’. Not even just a ‘yes’ but a super excited I-can’t-wait-to-‘yes’. I was such an eager beaver, looking to learn, to make connections, to impress. And it served me very well – for a few years, that is.


I'm not sure how the translation went wrong at this restaurant in Beijing!

I’m not sure how the translation went wrong at this restaurant in Beijing!

Fast forward to when I got a really big job – we’re talking a team of five people, global responsibility, a two million dollar budget, and a direct reporting line to one of the company’s directors. Needless to say, I was busy. With an incredibly broad remit, I knew the team and I had to stay focused, and yet I was constantly fielding requests to get involved in new projects and events – almost always from managers who were a lot more senior than me.


One senior woman acted as if she was my manager. She wasn’t. Of course I couldn’t remind her of this so directly.


We’d have meetings and she’d say things like “Can you go write me a paper on this so that I can take it to the executive team”? I hated it because I knew I shouldn’t be and didn’t want to be writing the paper. I wanted to ask her who she thought she was! Not a good idea, obv. And yet I felt that saying ‘no’ was going to be career-limiting. The old me who had been really eager to please was fighting the new me who knew I had to keep things on track.


Over time, I got increasingly skilled at saying ‘no’. The key for me was finding a way that didn’t make me feel like I was going to look lazy, unhelpful or difficult. In my books, “That’s not part of my job”, is pretty much the worst thing you can say. So, here are three of my favorite approaches that I recommend you try out next time you’re asked to lead on something you know you shouldn’t.


Can I get back to you on that?

First off, this buys you time. It takes you out of a potentially uncomfortable situation and allows you to regroup and figure out what exactly you want to say. If you want to check in with your manager first, this is a good route to take. If you’re worried about stumbling over your words, you can follow up with an email. Just make sure you do in fact circle back and close the loop.


That sounds great/interesting but I’m afraid don’t have the time to do that justice.

This is a good strategy as while you’re saying ‘no’, you’re praising the project.  If appropriate, you could follow up by mentioning a colleage who is especially interested in the topic.


Who on your team could I partner with?

If the work is something you should do, but you don’t have capacity, this is good middle ground.  You’re getting involved but without shouldering 100% of the work.


Of course put this advice to use carefully. Turning down the CEO’s request to do just about anything is obviously a bad call, for example. Likewise if you’re really junior or new to the role/company, you might need to utter ‘yes’ a few more times before you put these suggestions to use.


Got a question or tip about saying ‘no’? Post a comment below.


Comments & Responses

2 Responses so far.

  1. KMontgomery3038 says:

    So day one of my working in the Healthcare industry, as a network engineer, the Manager is touring me around and we run into a doctor… actually the lead physician for the hospital (mind you this is 2002). Immediately after introducing me, he asks to have his Compaq Ipaq put on the network and allowed to access all applications (which it first off couldn’t do, but that was secondary). Imagine his and my Manager’s surprise when I immediately chimed in and said ‘No’. I followed it quickly with ‘It is too much of a security risk and a specialized item, we need to standardize if we are going to do that to insure it meets hospital requirements’. Both stood there dumbfounded as no one spoke to him in such stark terms… but lucky for me it worked out and he understood my points. I guess where I’m going with this is… sometimes saying No is necessary but having the tact to do it less painfully and with less risk is a great skill to develop… bluntness won’t always work so well!

  2. Boredom to Boardroom says:

    Definitely, Ken! As you’ve shown, saying no can lead to people taking notice of you and the work that you stand for – so there’s a lot to gain if you can do it in the right way.

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