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Employee Wellness Mental Health 101 Self Help Work in the New Normal

How to Say “No” At Work Without Putting People Off

Your goal is to ensure that disappointment doesn’t escalate to insult.

Mental health experts always advise us to say “No” to requests that make us feel stressed or uncomfortable so that we protect our boundaries and not feel overburdened. But this is easier said than done when it comes to the workplace, where begging off from a task assigned by a higher-up can negatively impact our career, while declining a client’s request for help can strain our relationship with them. In fact, a 2015 study by Linked In revealed that more than 58% of millennials globally consider themselves a “yes employee” – someone who does as they are told and is more apt not to question authority. This can result in a workforce that sees higher incidences of burnout, which can lead to mental health concerns.

So how can you say no to unreasonable requests, pointless meetings, busy work, and demanding clients without coming across as lazy, selfish, or disrespectful? The suggestions below might help: 

  • Show a valid reason. Don’t simply say “No.” Share your logic, the facts, and what motivated your decision. For example, don’t thumb down a proposal and have the team making conclusions about why you did so, i.e. “He doesn’t care about our opinion” or “It’s because she’s not benefitting from it.” Instead, cite the data and the thought process that led you to that position, so that you let others know that you gave careful consideration before making a decision. Say “I analyzed the pros and cons and believe we should turn this down because…” or “I cannot grant you this request because according to our company policy…
  • Offer an alternative. Instead of closing the door, offer something to smooth over the effect of your rejection, i.e. “I can’t help you right now but try me again when my current project has been completed” or “I don’t like this proposal but I’ll give you another week to come back with a better one…”
  • Be confident but humble. It’s important to take a firm stand, but not one where you come across as a know-it-all. You alienate more than you convince when you make statements like “The only reasonable conclusion we can draw is…” or “The right answer is…” Instead, use phrases like “I’ve concluded…” and “I believe…” to demonstrate a combination of resolve and humility that avoids provoking unnecessary conflict.
  • Be respectful. When saying no to a person of authority, particularly someone who might misinterpret your denial as disrespect, it can be helpful to ask permission to say no. This allows you to honor their authority while maintaining your integrity. For example, you could tell your superior, “You’ve asked me to take on a new project. I think it’s a bad idea for me to take it on, and I’d like to share my reasons. If, however, you don’t want to hear them, I’ll take it on and do my best. What would you like?” In most cases, the boss will feel obligated to hear you out.
    Now if the boss refuses to hear your reservations, you need to decide if this is an environment you want to spend a significant part of your life in.
  • Negotiate. Sometimes a “no” can turn into a “yes” if the other person is willing to modify the request or do something in return. Let’s say that your boss asks you to start working on a new project, and you know it’s not possible to do your other projects well if you have to add this one. Instead of saying, “I don’t see how I can do that” or “That’s not possible” — negotiate. Say something like, “Is this new project X a higher priority than project Y?  Because if we could move the deadline on Y by just a few days, then I can get X done.” 
  • Apologize and offer to do what you can.  Finally, when you ultimately say no, express your regret and offer to move as far in the direction of their request as possible. An example would be telling a customer “I’m afraid our current policies don’t allow this, but I will talk to my superior if we can do this in the future.” This lets the person know that even though you can’t fulfill this particular request, you hope to be able to fulfill the next one. 

Saying no isn’t being selfish. It’s being smart with the limited time you have each day, because no matter how many tasks and people you take on, the number of hours in a day remains the same so the amount of rest your body needs will also remain the same. By saying no and prioritizing your well-being, you become a healthier, happier, and more productive worker. 

— Written by Jaclyn Lutanco-Chua of MindNation