How to Say No at Work Without Ruining Your Reputation

What’s the best way to say no to your manager without feeling a sense of shame or obligation, but also get your teammates’ respect?

There are countless people who want more focus but struggle to have the kinds of conversations. I think there’s an important attitude to bring to these kinds of conversations, embodied in a mantra I once heard:

Saying no in the right way means portraying yourself as a contributor craving focus, not as a complainer craving less.

When you make the kind of shift. you have to be a bit selfish. And I think that’s ok. Many people suffering from burnout haven’t thought enough about themselves. But you don’t want to get to a place where you accept only those tasks that are fun for you or decline work for the sake of doing less work. Managing work requests is about watching out for yourself so you can be a better teammate and team member within the organisation. That’s what you want to make clear.

With that said, let’s talk about how you can better manage the repercussions of saying NO.

1. Saying No Means Letting SOME People Down

 When you make the shift to saying no, your personal brand (reputation) will shift. Five years ago, I wanted to shift the direction of my career. I wanted to do new things, work on new initiatives, and move toward a new future. My manager was incredibly supportive; but she warned me that making the shift might mean shifting my brand. I would have to focus on pleasing new parties.

Consequently, that meant not being as available to the parties I once helped. If I wanted a new brand, I needed to focus on serving different initiatives within the company (though they were a part of the same larger goal). Over the next two years, I had to learn to be ok with not being the go-to person for the sales team. I had to learn to accept disappointment from some co-workers when I said, “I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to teach that class; I need to focus on XYZ.” While it’s important to think about your brand in the organisation as you grow, it’s impossible to have the brand of “she does everything for everyone, all the time.” To please and serve the initiatives, projects, and people that matter most to you—including yourself—you may have to let some down.

2. Ask Your Manager for His or Her View

Saying no is great but doing so should align with your team’s and manager’s needs as well. Unfortunately, we don’t always have control over what we say no to. Be candid with your manager about why you are trying this new approach and explain how you think it will help not only you, but also your manager and the team. Ask your manager if he/she thinks you might be saying no to the wrong things. Does he/she see the impact this approach is having on your performance?

3. Being Helpful Doesn’t Necessarily Mean YOU Have to do the Work

I find that people accept “no” much better when you respond to their request with respect for them and their needs. Ask them questions to clarify what they need. Let them know you understand why their request is important and that you want to be helpful. Then, take five minutes to help them brainstorm alternative solutions (that don’t involve you) that could yield similar or better results. When you consistently help your team members find solutions to problems, you make it clear you’re a contributor craving focus.

4. “Do” and “Decline” Aren’t the Only Options

When you feel overwhelmed, it helps to write down everything on your mind and then decide, for each item, whether you should do, decline, or renegotiate it. Renegotiating is just as important as the other two options. Most of us treat all requests from co-workers like they are equally urgent. But in my experience, a third of those requests are urgent, a third can be completed in a few days, and a third can be postponed a few weeks or even months. But we rarely seek clarification. Too often when a request comes in, we assume it has to be completed right now so we feel overwhelmed. To avoid this problem, ask questions. When you clearly understand what a request entails and when the deadline is, you can contribute more meaningfully—whether that means you take it on yourself or seek alternative but mutual solutions.

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