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How to Say No at Work Without Ruining Your Reputation

Dear Justin,

What’s the best way to say no? On a recent webcast, you mentioned the importance of declining requests and renegotiating commitments. So, I tried it. A coworker came to me with an emergency and I declined to help. I didn’t have the time and I said, “No, I’m sorry. I can’t help you with this one.” And it felt WONDERFUL! I’ve also turned down other requests I’d normally agree to and doing so has dramatically improved my life. I feel like I have space to work and think, to actually do MY job. But I’m also earning a reputation. My manager informed me today that others feel I’m not a team player, that something has shifted, that I’m selfish. I don’t want to go back to saying yes to every request out of some sense of shame or obligation, but I also want my teammates’ respect. What should I do?

Just Saying No

Dear Just Saying No,

First of all, can I just celebrate with you for a second? Few people make such a shift, and I want to tell you—way to go! I talk with countless people who want more focus but struggle to have the kinds of conversations you’ve been having. It seems like your willingness to do so has helped you gain a sense of control and freedom. Kudos to you and the other readers who are discovering the benefit of more actively managing incoming tasks and requests.

That said, 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, 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 organization. That’s what you want to make clear.

With that said, let’s talk about how you can better manage the repercussions you’re experiencing.

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 coworkers 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 organization 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.

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?

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.

“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 coworkers 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.

I hope this helps,

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4 thoughts on “How to Say No at Work Without Ruining Your Reputation”

  1. Arie Tzvieli

    Justin, I hate to be the messenger of bad news, but the starting point of your response (I think it was: How to be selfish in a smart way) was very bad for the person and the organization. I am glad that your last 2 points can lead to a point of view of: How to be considerate and responsive while keeping your boundaries. Better consult with Joseph next time.

    1. Justin

      thanks for your response. I appreciate the engagement. I’m not sure how the message at the start came off as selfish in a smart way. my intent was for people to focus on how they can be their best self through creating boundaries. Technically we could say that reading these articles are for selfish reasons (to be better)….but like my article, i hope that people are learning to better for themselves AND others. thanks so much!

  2. JennyG

    Justin, I really appreciate your comments on this difficult issue. It is helpful to recognize that not burning oneself out but rather building priorities and maintaining some margin is absolutely essential to doing one’s job well, as a team player. Some people may call this “selfish” from the outside, and it may feel “selfish” to those of us who are just new at taking a more effective approach, but ultimately the kind of focus you’re talking about preserves both our own health as well as the health of our organizations.

    In some professional fields “self-care” is taught and fostered. However in many others it is ignored or downright spurned, but without an ethos of self-care an organization is putting itself at all kinds of risk, especially long-term. It is a wise and productive thing to recognize that each of us has limitations and to factor that into our work practices.

    I appreciate specifically Justin’s suggestion to take a few minutes with a person requesting help to brainstorm with them alternative approaches to solving their problem, considering potential resources and next steps, even if they don’t include ourselves personally. I have often employed this strategy and it really works! It requires humility to admit that we aren’t the answer to every problem and it does build teamwork!

    1. Justin

      thanks JennyG. I love your additional points here!

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