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4 Steps on the Journey to Saying “No” in the Workplace – Part I

lisa 1.1webYou know the drill; he walks into your office and asks you once again for help with a project and says, “I realize that it is a tight deadline but you can do it, right? You always come through for me and I really appreciate you.” There it is: the hook. You smile and say, “Of course I can,” while inside, you are thinking, “why does he always do this to me? I know he is the Project Lead but it seems that he always comes to me when he mismanages his workload – never any of the other team members. He completely throws a wrench in my work for the week.” On its heels, that internal voice pops in and reminds you of his buddy-buddy relationship with the department manager. “A good word for me would go a long way for my career. Well….hmmm…. I guess I’ll be working late again tonight.”

Today’s tough job market is riddled with fear about being laid off, let go, and passed up for that one available promotion. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs would suggest that these concerns drive employees back to “safety and security” – stuck in a perpetual state of worry about financial and job security. In this state, employees are afraid to take risks, collaborate with and trust others, assert dissenting opinions, provide innovative and improvement ideas, and not surprisingly, say “no” to circumstances where others hold the power position. Overworked and overburdened, employees suffer from mounds of external and internal stress that costs employers millions of dollars each year in lost productivity, absences, worker’s compensation claims, sabotage, workplace conflict, and chronic illnesses.

If fear drives us to say “yes,” how can we ever risk saying “no?”

say-noStart with these four steps: a personal assessment of your own beliefs, job expectations, departmental environment and organizational culture.
1. Accept your right to say “no.” Assertiveness belief #4 suggests that “I accept responsibility for myself and can say no.” If you embrace this right of assertiveness, you will cultivate a desire to say “no” to requests that are unreasonable. Assertiveness is built on a foundation of having choices and seeing ourselves with that capability. Your first step is to see yourself as having the choice to explore “no.”

2. Uncover organizational beliefs and values around work-life balance. Here you will need to uncover what beliefs and values exist in your workplace and in the heart of your immediate supervisor or manager. Determine what constitutes high performance on the job in the eyes of your supervisor. If you don’t know, ask.

Some years ago, I conducted a time management roundtable where ten or so employees worked on their skills over the course of nine weeks. One employee, in particular, struggled with the demands of her supervisor. At first, she painted the picture of unreasonable tasks that were being placed upon her by this person that were rendering her powerless to effectively manage her time. With further exploration, she came to realize and accept that her manager held the authority to determine what tasks were important to the successful performance of her job, not her. In the past, the employee simply saw other tasks as more fulfilling and wanted to give these other tasks first priority. In the end, she had to make a decision as to whether she would accept the direction of her manager or continue on her own path and suffer the possible consequences.

If your workplace believes that to be successful at your job or attain high performance, you must do whatever it takes (work weekends, nights etc.) to meet the tasks, customer needs or deadlines set before you, then you will have your answer. At this point, the burden shifts to you to determine if you want to work under this belief system. If you say “yes,” saying “no” to work requests may not be an option for you.

Conversely, you might just find out that you alone have been the one assuming you had to say “yes” to every request, when, actually, the organization and your immediate supervisor never required this of you.

3. Learn from past history. What’s the saying? The proof is in the pudding. I still suggest you proceed cautiously and put on your reporter hat. Ask colleagues and mentors how your manager has responded to other employees “saying no” to unreasonable requests for work schedules or deadlines in the past. Watch how others respond to extra responsibilities and demands on their time and how your immediate supervisor reacts to refusal and negotiation. Talk confidentially with Human Resources about their perceptions of the organizational culture and expectations.

4. Anticipate the feeling of loss. You must recognize that saying “yes” does bring with it the acceptance and affection of others, even if only temporarily. Others may not appreciate your new found desire to assert yourself. So, think about whether you can live with the losses that will come with declining a request or asking for a compromise.

Without changing anything, the first step rests in preparing yourself for change. Take the time you need to research and work through your risk assessment and understand the consequences of new behaviors.
Stay tuned for Part II – the nine tips to saying “no” assertively. Remember this quote: “Our challenge is to develop a voice that is uniquely our own, a voice that reflects our deepest values and convictions. Once we are comfortable with that voice, we can bring it to our relationships. We can choose to be assertive — or we can let it go. We can speak — or decide not to.”


Don’t forget to download our newest guide which may help you be more assertive in your ‘no’ and delegate responsibilities.  Download now!


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