Why ‘no’ could be your magic word at work

As a child, you're told that please and thank you are the magic words. But at work, the magic word might be a simple no.

Never saying “no” at work can mean late hours, extra assignments, tighter deadlines, fewer resources or even moving three states away. Always saying yes can leave you overwhelmed and will inevitably undermine both your own success and that of your organization.

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Saying no will provide you with the time and energy to focus on the work that will move your career forward, according to Elana Lyn Gross, business owner and content strategist, in Forbes. So, why is this simple, one-syllable term so hard to pronounce? Saying “no” at work makes you feel guilty and uncomfortable. 

"You may think people will dislike you, think you are entitled or question whether you are a team player," Gross noted. "It seems paradoxical, but saying no strategically and respectfully can help your career."

Gross interviewed highly successful women and suggests saying no in these four situations: 

  • When saying “yes” would make you unable to accomplish your duties: "Say no at work when you are assigned a task that does not fall under your job description and could be easily accomplished by the person who is asking it," Eileen Carey, CEO of Glassbreakers, told Gross. "If you aren't getting paid to do something and the task will take away time from accomplishing what you are paid to do, saying no demonstrates your commitment to your role and the value of your time."
  • When the task doesn't align with your priorities: "My best tip for saying no is to be straightforward and not dance around the subject," said Johanna Lanus, CEO and founder of Work With Balance. "Explain that the task, project or activity doesn't align with your current priorities and, if the situation changes, you will revisit the topic."
  • When you fundamentally disagree: Liz Wessel, CEO and cofounder of WayUp suggests asking "Why?" when you disagree with a decision. This no-substitute "forces the opposite side to explain and justify her point of view."
  • When saying yes conflicts with your values: "Welcoming opportunities is so important," noted Amanda Greenberg, CEO and co-founder of Baloonr. "That being said, saying no is just as important. You should say no when it is going to set a precedent that you aren't comfortable with or that might be harmful moving forward. It is also important to say no when you know that you won't be able to deliver." 

New assignments are one of the primary areas where an effective workplace "no" is key, according to Harvard Business Review. "Most of us say yes to requests and assignments without filtering them by what's urgent, let alone what's possible. We like saying yes to our superiors, but agreeing to do too many things leaves us overstressed and overworked. Being effective requires making tradeoffs."

Holly Weeks, author of Failure to Communicate considers a firm-but-polite no the middle ground between confrontation and saying yes when you don't want to. "We're worried about damaging the relationship. And whether you are conflict-averse or conflict-ready, your counterpart may not always handle hearing no the way you'd hoped."

Weeks offered these tips for improving your ability to say no:

  • Anticipate the other side's tactics. "Some counterparts will to try to 'yes the no,' even when you're hoping for minimal friction, because they have learned early on not to take no for an answer and feel like pushovers if they do." 
  • Consider saying no in private. Some circumstances might make it more difficult for a boss or co-worker to accept your negative response in public without feeling like she's losing face.
  • Don't give false hope. "If you say no tentatively, it's easy for your counterpart to hope that you'll change your mind. That false hope, even more than the no, may damage your relationship."

  • When you encounter pushback, be sure to stay on topic and give a good reason for your refusal. "Saying no shouldn't be a monologue," Weeks said. "But if you have a good reason for saying no, stay with it."

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