How to say “no” to work


All of sudden, you’re flooded with a zillion meeting requests, a gillion projects, and other random one-off requests. There’s only one of you, finite hours in a day, and personal  / familial demands to maintain — what do you do?

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate the value the “Decline” button and the word “No”. While rejecting others can be quite difficult to implement, it’s liberating afterwards. More importantly, it allows you to focus on your priorities. Here is how to say “no”:

1. Build a reputation for being hard working

Before you start rejecting others, you not only need to say “yes” but also make sure you produce outstanding work. Building political capital upfront is a critical precedent to drawing boundaries later on.

2. Consider and evaluate the request

Generally, when people reach out to you for work or to join a meeting, this is good news….because you are needed. If nobody wants to work with you, then you probably are in deeper troubles. When evaluating the request, consider the following:

  • How important is this request relative to the other work on your plate?
  • Is this work aligned with your performance and / or career objectives?
  • Does this work provide you with any strategic developmental opportunities? (e.g., work with a business unit you’re hoping to transfer to, or with a senior leader you’re hoping to network with)
  • What would be your role in the project?
  • How much time and resources would this request realistically take up?
  • What are the possible risks in this project? (e.g., the technology is relatively untested with our customers)
  • Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

3.  Ask Questions 

If you can’t answer all the questions above, then be sure to contact the requestor for more details. Of course, I may rephrase some of the questions (particularly around your career and developmental goals) depending on the audience. Sometimes, you may find that the requestor hasn’t thought through all the details thoroughly, so it helps to figure that out as well.

For example, I was recently asked to join a meeting about drafting legal terms and conditions. I approached the meeting requestor and asked: “What would be my role in the meeting? Would my contribution be critical?”. It turned out that the answer to both questions were “no”.

Therefore, often you don’t even need to say “no” directly because your questions would have allowed someone to conclude that perhaps it’s not critical for you to join a meeting or work on a particular project.

4. Provide a justified “no” 

If possible, say “no” in person or through the phone since email messages cannot convey tone, particularly if you’re responding to someone you don’t know well. Convey the following key messages:

  • Show appreciation for being considered in the first place
  • Say “No”: Phase it to be something like…”Unfortunately, I am unable to join this project for the time being.”
  • Provide key reasons (Remember to make this concise. Nobody likes to be rejected by a laundry list of items.)
  • Offer alternatives: “However, Johnny has managed similar projects in the past. I’ve also spoken with him, and he’s very interested in this project. You should reach out to him.”
  • Leave the door open for future possibilities

When you turn down a project, focus your communication on what would be most helpful for the project goals. That way, you are pulling out for the good of the project rather than rejecting the requestor as a person.

2 thoughts on “How to say “no” to work

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