The following is a guest submission from Farrah Mitra, an executive coach, founder of Green Reed, and one of only 12 Radical Candor coaches in the world. Have a tough work-life question? Readers can submit anonymous questions for Farrah using this form.
Hi Jana — saying no is hard. Saying no when times are tough (or expectations are high) is especially hard.
Jana, I completely understand where you’re coming from. Turning down a project from a teammate or your direct manager certainly comes with challenges. We all want to seem like team players, but sometimes it’s necessary to push back if it’s not manageable.
This is especially true for the people pleasers (like me) in the audience: Declining additional work isn’t only a critical skill for maintaining work-life balance. It also ensures you can continue delivering quality work for the company. So if you want to continue being the rockstar you are, take a deep breath and know it’s okay to push back and say no.
When "No" Is Good for Business
If this sounds like too big a hurdle, let me share a story from personal experience.
I worked as a management consultant for several years. It was one of the best experiences of my career and I could not be where I am today without that experience. And it was certainly challenging at times.
Saying no doesn’t always have to be about your needs — you can make it about the business’s needs.
Management consulting firms focus on excellence and that can mean heavier workloads to deliver that excellence. After a few challenging projects, I was staffed to one that I didn’t feel I could take on. Here’s what I said:
- “I’m so appreciative of the projects I’ve worked on here. They’ve pushed me to be better, and I’ve grown so much as a result."
- "I believe in our mission, I enjoy the work here, and want to be at the organization for the long term. That means continuing to meet a high-quality bar at a sustainable pace. I am hoping we can partner to give me a project where I can catch my breath. I want to be able to deliver and right now I don’t feel like I can do that to the best of my ability.”
I was then put on an internal project where I was still adding value and could catch my breath, having alleviated some of the natural pressures that come with client work. My peers were surprised I said something. I think they assumed you would never push back on a staffing assignment. With a reasonable, human request, came a reasonable solution. After that, I asked for one of the harder cases, because I wanted to jump back in. It was a win-win. And, I stayed at the company for over a decade!
Don’t be apologetic, and don’t make excuses...just say that you’re unable to take on the task.
Saying no doesn’t always have to be about your needs — you can make it about the business’s needs. Reaffirming your long-term commitment to the company helps dispel the notion that you aren’t invested in its future. It also positions saying no as a decision made to fulfill business needs. In other words, the project is too important and warrants attention from someone with more bandwidth and capacity.
Being Honest and Direct
Tonally, the most important thing to remember when saying no is to be authentic, honest, and direct. Don’t be apologetic, and don’t make excuses you’ll have to backtrack on — just say that you’re unable to take on the task or don’t have the capacity to do it. In special cases where “no” isn’t necessarily an option, it may be helpful to offer alternative solutions. The best managers will be one step ahead, already thinking of ways to reprioritize assignments or put something on the back burner. If they haven’t, don’t shy away from offering potential solutions, either. If they really need you to do it, you can ask questions like:
- “I hear that A, B, C, and D need to get done. I want to ensure I can deliver these effectively and in a timely way. Which of these are the high, medium, and low priorities? I’d like to focus on the high and medium and come back to you on the low once we’ve delivered on the most important things."
- “How can we partner so that I can make things sustainable and deliver what we need for the business?”
Pushing back and saying no comes with a learning curve, but it’s an essential skill to maintain balance, stay engaged, and produce quality work at a (sustainable) pace. Give it a try — your boss might even be relieved to hear you say it.