Anja van den Berg
Nobody wants to be a yes-man (or woman) at work, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say ‘no’ to your boss. Whether you’re being asked to increase your workload, take on a task that you believe is a bad idea or work over the weekend, how do you tactfully decline?
For most of us, saying ‘no’ doesn’t come naturally. You feel lousy disappointing a colleague, guilty about turning down your superior and anxious denying a client’s request. “People have a hard time saying ‘no’ – period – and when you introduce power, it gets exponentially worse,” says Joseph Grenny, co-author of Crucial Conversations.
Yet, good managers appreciate employees who have the confidence to say ‘no’, says workplace communications consultant Diane Amundson. “Most say they’re willing to listen to sound reasoning to find a solution,” she says. “It’s all about how you frame and phrase it.”
It’s never comfortable to decline somebody’s request. But there are steps you can take to make the conversation go as well as possible. Here are some pointers:
- Be straightforward but not blunt
If you realize you have neither the desire nor the bandwidth to be involved, and, therefore, need to turn down the request, be honest and upfront about your reasons, advises Holy Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate. “Too often, people start with lightweight reasons and hold back the real reason they’re saying ‘no’. But the little, self-deprecating explanations are not persuasive and are easily batted aside. Or they come across as disingenuous.”
Specialist business communicator Sara McCord suggests the following response: “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this week/weekend working on [name of other activity].”
- Offer a lifeline
To maintain a good relationship with the person you’re turning down, it’s critical to acknowledge their perspective, says Weeks. Be empathetic and compassionate. Consider offering them a lifeline by proposing to be involved in the project to a certain extent. Perhaps you can attend brainstorming sessions, read first drafts or simply serve as a sounding board. “Even in saying ‘no’, you want to convey team spirit,” Weeks explains.
- Watch your body language
The manner in which you say ‘no’ is very important. Be kind, but firm. Throughout the conversation, watch your body language. Your aim is to convey a ‘Neutral No’, like a referee in a game who doesn’t have a stake in either side but calls it like it is. Try to keep your voice even and steady and don’t fidget, which conveys discomfort. If you’re overly apologetic or wishy-washy, you risk giving your colleague false hope that she can change your mind by further prolonging the conversation.
Keep in mind that you’re saying no to the request, not the person. Make this clear by expressing your respect for your colleague and by being polite. Sure, your colleague may not be happy with you pushing back, but it doesn’t have to be a personal attack, especially if you have a good reason.
Gallo, A. 2017. “HBR’s Best on Saying No to More Work”. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2017/01/hbrs-best-on-saying-no-to-more-work
Knight, R. 2015. “How to Say No to Taking on More Work”. Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2015/12/how-to-say-no-to-taking-on-more-work
McCord, S. 2016. “4 Completely Inoffensive Ways to Say No at Work (Because Yes Isn’t Always an Option)”. The Muse, https://www.themuse.com/advice/4-completely-inoffensive-ways-to-say-no-at-work-because-yes-isnt-always-an-option
Vozza, S. 2015. “7 Ways To Say No To Your Boss And Keep Your Job”., Fast Company, https://www.fastcompany.com/3044750/hit-the-ground-running/7-ways-to-say-no-to-your-boss-and-keep-your-job