27 September 2023

The magic work word: No

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Nick Deligiannis* explains how people can say ‘no’ to more work while still being a team player.

Strategically managing your career sometimes involves knowing when and how to say no to more work.

After all, you don’t want to regularly work late into the evenings.

So, for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing, it’s important to set healthy boundaries and learn how to say no to extra work in a diplomatic way.

If you are good at your job and have reached a certain point in your career, you will soon get noticed and naturally new projects will fall on your desk.

However, in order to build on your success, you have to accept that you can’t do everything and you can’t please everyone.

There are also times when the work you are being asked to do falls outside your area of expertise or interest, or when you are already faced with a jam-packed workload and are simply unable to commit to any other projects.

Yet at the same time, nobody wants to be viewed as someone who isn’t a team player or is challenging to work with.

When a new request for your help comes your way, you therefore need to make a considered decision as to whether it is beneficial for you to get involved in a new project or not.

If it’s not, you must say no – but in the right way.

Here’s what to consider

Saying ‘no’ at work is not something that comes naturally to most people.

When a new request falls on your desk, it’s important to take a step back and consider a few factors.

Resist the temptation to say ‘yes’ right away, however eager to please you may be, especially if the task falls outside of your remit.

Instead, give yourself some time to think by politely telling the requestor that you need to consider your current workload and will come back to them shortly – don’t put pressure on yourself by responding to them straight away.

Once you’ve done so, consider the request in light of these factors:

  • How relevant is the task to your role?
  • Does it fit with your current priorities?
  • Does it fit with your wider career objectives?
  • Do you have the time – or are you at risk of burnout?
  • Who’s asking? How senior are they and why are they asking for help?
  • If you say no, how would this be perceived by the business?

How to say “no”

After you’ve made the considered decision to say no to the request, then comes the hard part – actually saying no.

There are many reasons why you may find it hard to say no, including:

  • You want to exchange a favour
  • You want to be liked
  • You don’t want to burn any bridges
  • You are fearful of conflict
  • You feel guilty
  • You have unreal expectations of your own ability

But to be successful at work and prove your value without burning out, you must overcome these reservations.

If you say no in the right way, you won’t have to feel remorseful.

Saying no is your prerogative, and your colleagues should always be respectful of your decision and time.

Just make sure when you’re turning down a request for help that you’re doing so in an honest and transparent way that shares the context of your existing workload – this is the easiest way to keep your workmates on your side.

After all, by saying no you are likely putting the task back on the to-do list of the person you’ve turned down.

Take a moment therefore to explain why you are unable to assist.

Here are some simple and effective ways to say no:

  • “Thank you for thinking of me, but unfortunately I can’t commit to this as I have already prioritised X, Y and Z to attend to this week”
  • “Now isn’t a great time I’m afraid as my calendar is full up until [date] with other requests. How about we connect again on [date]?”
  • “Sorry but that’s not my area of expertise. [Name] would be better suited to this particular request.”

A final thought

As previously stated, if you are good at your job then you will sooner or later be recognised for it.

With this recognition will come an increasing number of requests for your help.

However, saying yes to too many requests will only overwhelm and frustrate you further down the line.

You must learn to say no, otherwise you risk hindering your own career progression.

So, avoid a knee-jerk response and instead provide the person you are turning down with a genuine and considerate reason why you must decline their request.

By being honest and sharing the wider context of your existing workload, you’ll gain a reputation as someone who can effectively prioritise and focus on the most meaningful and beneficial work.

*Nick Deligiannis is Managing Director of Hays Australia and New Zealand.

This article first appeared at hays.com.au.

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