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How to say ‘no’ at work (politely and effectively)

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When did you last say ‘yes’ at work, then instantly regret it?

Although building a thriving career is about tackling new tasks, projects and responsibilities, it can be easy to take too much on - especially if you’re ambitious and keen to succeed, as many of the candidates we recruit through HR GO are.

If you know you don’t have extra time or bandwidth to take anything else on yet still blurt out ‘Yes, no problem’, you risk following a common path. Chances are, you’ll become overwhelmed, overloaded and so less productive and unable to carry out your core responsibilities. 

This will probably lead you to feel put upon and undervalued - and overall not a happy member of the team.

The answer? Change how you view the word ‘no’. Rather than a word that can damage your career, it can actually be a powerful tool to help you perform to your max. 

But learning how to say no is definitely a skill to be learnt - and it takes some courage and confidence along the way. Here are some handy tips to help you.

Decide what’s on your ‘yes’ list

Being clear in your head on what you can’t do means first knowing what you always can do, and should do, first.

What are the commitments you 100% need to take care of before you can take any additional tasks on?

Decide on the things that take up the large chunk of your day to have a clear picture of how much time and bandwidth - if any - you have left over for extra requests.

Press pause on your decision

Often, being put on the spot with a work request is what makes people blurt out a ‘Yes, no problem’ right away.

Don’t make that mistake. Ask for as much information about what you’re being asked to do first so you can completely understand the context.

What’s the time frame of the task? How will success be measured? And crucially, how might it impact on your existing workload?

The answers to these questions will affect what it might mean to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ so it’s key to have some time to think strategically.

Say ‘yes’ while you say ‘no’

Dealing with this situation as constructively as possible means offering an alternative - if you decide to say ‘no’ for whatever reason.

Is a colleague better suited to do it? Or are there aspects of it that you can help with? Even if you can’t personally take on a task or project you still want it to be completed effectively, and suggesting a different route shows you’re invested in the success of your team.

Talk about it face to face

Saying ‘no’ to a work request can be one of the trickiest things to navigate, especially if the situation is fraught or the timeline is tight – and the person asking is your boss.

Emailing and messaging are massively convenient at work, but even if you choose your words carefully on screen your true intention might not come across how you’d like.

Aim to discuss it face to face, if possible. You’ll be far less likely to seem disagreeable or disrespectful when you don’t mean to, and will be able to be put a stronger case. 

Our tip? Rehearse what you’ll say first. To come across as professional and convincing with your ‘no’, you need to own the reasons why you can’t take on this extra work at the moment - and as with everything, preparation is key.

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