Employee Engagement

Here's How to Get Better at Saying No at Work

September 6, 2023
November 7, 2023
Jennifer Ernst Beaudry and Deanna deBara
Lattice Team

It’s not a surprise that most people have a hard time saying no at work. When it comes to advancement, in fact, we’re taught that saying yes to any opportunities that come our way is a chance to demonstrate our eagerness, our commitment, and the kind of go-getter attitude that managers are supposed to prize.

But there are plenty of valuable, even essential reasons you should be saying no to your boss. Whether it’s turning down additional work that will interfere with your core responsibilities or declining to take on new project management oversight that you’re simply not the best person to handle, saying no at work can actually demonstrate leadership, strategic thinking, and good judgment.

Here’s how to get better at saying no — and how it can help your advancement.

Key takeaways

  • Saying no constructively can protect your time, your team, and even your company.
  • Declining to take opportunities or tasks doesn’t mean you’ll never get promoted.
  • Being clear, prompt, and prepared when you say no can make all the difference.
  • Saying no the right way and to the right things can actually increase trust.

When to Say No

It can feel like there’s a lot at stake when you consider saying no in the workplace. You may be worried that saying no could jeopardize good relationships with your colleagues or your supervisor. Or you might be concerned that if you don’t agree to take on new tasks, your advancement opportunities could be curtailed. If you’re usually a yes person, you might not even be sure you can say no at work. 

But experts agree that saying no at the right times (and for the right reasons) can actually enhance your reputation. While individual circumstances may vary, there are a few situations where saying no makes good business sense. 

Consider saying no at work…

  • …if it pulls focus from your core responsibility. Your priority at work needs to be your job duties. Tasks, projects, and initiatives from outside your job description that take a significant share of your energy and time jeopardize your ability to make your goals and hit your deadlines — and that’s not in your best interest, nor the company’s. 

    This is especially true of non-promotable tasks, or the tasks that help the company function but don’t advance the careers of the people who do them. Those can include serving on committees or task forces; organizing social activities; creating handbooks; or even making sure someone passes around a birthday card.

    While working on these tasks — especially ones that align with your passions or interests, like leading a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) workshop or running the mentoring program — can be rewarding, it’s okay to say no to doing them. And if unrewarded opportunities are putting pressure on your ability to deliver on your core responsibilities, you owe it to yourself (and your company) to decline.

  • …if it will have negative repercussions for your firm. Sometimes, a request is more than just a potential time-suck: It can actively work counter to other priorities. If the C-suite is suggesting changes that HR leadership thinks could derail employee morale or work counter to the firm’s best interests, for example, it’s essential that leadership raise the issue. Their professional insights can protect the company. 

  • …if it’s outside your skillset. While it can be flattering to be the go-to resource, it’s good to know when you can add value to a project — and when there’s someone else who can add more. There’s no shame in recommending that a different department, team, or colleague handle a given initiative if they have more experience, more enthusiasm, or even just more time to devote. 

  • …if you (or your team) are burnt out. Yes, being overburdened or overwhelmed is a real reason to say no. While dedicated employees often feel a sense of professional pride in handling everything that’s thrown at them, no good manager or executive wants people gritting their teeth to just get through the day. Not only is it damaging to the mental health of the individual employees and the team as a whole to be shouldering an ever-growing burden, but it’s also counterproductive. Employees who are burnt out can have difficulty focusing and less motivation — and it can take a toll not only on their work but also on their relationships with colleagues.

Supporting burnt-out employees is an area in which people managers have the authority to say no. While it can be daunting to stand up to the C-Suite, supervisors who protect the time and mental health of their teams demonstrate strategic thinking and empathetic management.

How to Say No Constructively

While the context of who’s asking and what they want matters, of course, when it comes to saying no at work, there are a few general principles that hold true in almost all cases. 

1. Make a strong case.

Once you’ve determined that “no” is the right answer, sharing that reasoning professionally means making the business case for your response.

“Good reasons to push back show ownership and or personal insight,” said Adelma Hand, executive coach and founder of executive coaching firm Hand and Partners. “Frame your response in terms of the manager's or executive's goals and act like an owner, [someone] who sees the bigger picture and is allocating resources like time, energy, money effectively.”

Giving your boss (or your colleagues or peers) the right context lets them know that you’ve given the request the thought it deserves, and it can help them see your side of the issue as well.

“Authentically share how you are using your energy and talents and why your choices are a great way for you to add value. Use descriptive language like, ‘When I focus on XYZ, I'm more focused and invested, which leads to higher quality work,’” said Sara Murdock, Ph.D., an organizational leadership expert and consultant. “Share how your many yeses contribute positively and share examples of how you have your team's back.”

Whether your reason is workload, time management, or job scope creep, don’t be afraid to push back with the confidence of knowing you have a compelling brief explanation in your back pocket.

“Be self-possessed: Emotionally level, clear, calm, simple, and sincere,” added Alicia Maness, an executive coach and founder of the Channelbright leadership accelerator. “When we give skillful ‘no’s, it can actually increase trust because we are [seen] as strong, having a clear perspective and good boundaries.”

  • What to say if this takes away from other priorities: “Right now, Project A and Project B have big deadlines coming up, and we agreed at the last meeting that those needed to be our top priority. I need to keep our focus on these to deliver the results we expect.”
  • What to say if the request isn’t in line with your goals or mission: “This initiative doesn’t seem aligned with our broader goals of Y and Z, and I’d like us to reconsider whether the expected upsides will be worth the downsides.”
  • What to say if you’re getting bogged down: “As you know, I always try to say yes to these opportunities, but I’ve already said yes to the Y and Z functions, and I’m being intentional about making sure I don’t overextend myself further than I can go — I appreciate your understanding!”
  • What to say if there’s someone better for the job: “I’d love to help, but X has significantly more experience in the area and would bring a really informed perspective to the table. Would they be a better fit here?”
  • What to say if you (or your team members) are burning out: “We’re at — or frankly exceeding — our limits right now given the needs of A and B, and we’re not in a position to deliver our best work on this.”

2. Make your “no” clear…

Don’t let the message get muddled. Part of saying no at work is making sure the message is received. 

“I've noticed many professionals struggle with saying 'no,' being vague and ambiguous and getting misinterpreted due to their lack of clarity,” said Anjela Mangrum, founder and president of Mangrum Career Solutions, an industrial manufacturing executive search firm. “While staying polite is important, you must be direct enough that you don't get misinterpreted.”

If saying no directly feels rude, remember that leaving someone confused — or worse, thinking you’re on board when you aren’t — means having to have the same conversation again but with added layers of frustration or consequences. While no one is hoping to get a no, good managers and colleagues appreciate clarity. And making a decision for the good of the job or the team shows superiors that you can make tough calls.

“Being a recruiter, I find assertive, confident professionals the most appealing. And as an employer, I would always prefer a worker who is candid about being maxed out and avoids taking more responsibility than someone who overcommits and fails to meet my expectations,” Mangrum said.

  • What to say: “While I’d love to help, I'm already working on a tight deadline for X project and I don’t have the bandwidth for Y task. I’m afraid I can’t take this one.”

3. …but find a yes where you can.

Sometimes “no” needs to be a complete sentence, but if there’s part of a request you can fulfill, an alternative solution you can propose, or any other way of saying yes, it can go a long way to building strong work relationships without sacrificing your boundaries.

“Sometimes the best way to say no is to say yes, and define that ‘yes.’ By doing so, we often find we rarely have to say no, and when we do, it’s much easier,” said Kevin Herring, founder and president of consulting firm Ascent Management Consulting

Being able to reframe your response as a yes — even a partial yes — makes it clear you’re trying to be a team player. Saying “yes, but” can be especially useful if the person you need to say no to is your boss. When you signal that you’re open to their direction but want to do right by your current responsibilities, you give good managers a chance to evaluate, assess, and reprioritize where needed. 

“Along with demonstrating everything on your plate, you’re giving the employer the opportunity to weigh in on what’s most important. That way, the new project can be passed to someone else or held for later,” said Valerie Fontaine, lead consultant and founding member of legal search firm SeltzerFontaine. “Or if it needs your attention now, you have permission to de-prioritize other tasks.”

  • What to say if you can’t do it now: “Once we’re past the third quarter reporting, I’d be free to tackle this, but not before. Would it be feasible to bump this until then?”
  • What to say if you can help with part of the project: “While I’m not able to spearhead the whole initiative, are there any critical tasks I could take off your to-do list and knock out for you?”
  • What to say if you’ll need to drop something else: “I can do tasks A and B this week, but wouldn’t be able to complete elements C and D without jeopardizing X. Is there any flexibility in the timeline, or would you prefer I prioritize C and D, even if it means X will be delayed?”

4. Don’t wait.

Even when it comes with unimpeachable reasoning, “no” isn’t the answer most bosses want to hear. But don’t let a fear of delivering unwelcome news lead you to put it off. If you know saying no to your supervisor or co-workers or peers is necessary, then let them know — sooner rather than later. 

“Once you determine that you’re not able to complete a task, don't wait to have that conversation. If you delay, it only makes it more difficult to reorganize the work and get it done in a timely fashion,” advised Fontaine.

Declining as soon as you know it’s not possible shows respect for the time of the person you’re turning down (who almost certainly will need time to explore other options), and it makes it more likely the task won’t boomerang back to you as a last-minute emergency.

  • What to say: “I’ve looked at the schedule and unfortunately it won’t be possible for my team to complete this in the timeframe you need. I wanted to let you know upfront so you can make alternate arrangements.” 

Why Saying No Is So Important

It’s normal to feel awkward or uncomfortable saying no at work, but like with so many things, practice makes perfect. 

For people pleasers, especially, it can be a “challenging skill to develop, and may be messy at first, but it's critical to develop the skill of saying a skillful no if we want to prevent burnout and/or rise in the organization,” Maness said. 

Defaulting to yes when it comes to extra work can mean less time to focus on core priorities, distraction for your team, threats to your short-term or long-term work-life balance, and even burnout. But setting boundaries in your position at work can lead to serious improvements.

“Saying no strategically will help you meet your goals and show others that you have boundaries, are willing to assert yourself, and are strategic in your thinking — which are rewarded and sought-after leadership values,” said R. Karl Hebenstreit, Ph.D., an executive coach and principal at management consulting firm Perform & Function

“Remember, saying no isn't about being difficult or uncooperative,” agreed Janifer Wheeler, a productivity consultant. “It's about respecting your time, your boundaries, and your mental health. It's not just a response — it's a positive choice for your personal and professional growth.”