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How To Say No At Work (And Still Maintain Positive Relationships)

how to say no at work

Everyone, at some point, has said “yes” to something they later regret, and it often occurs in a work context.

There aren’t clearly defined social rules in most organizations, and many people are unaware of what they can actually say “no” to.

In addition, many of us often want to be seen as team players and willing to help out, these are important attributes to be recognized by senior management, and they often help us to advance within an organization, but these sincere desires often lead to our taking on things that we shouldn’t, and we soon feel one (or more) of the following emotions:

  • Stress;
  • Anxiety;
  • Burnout and job fatigue;
  • A desire to “look for other options” and a lack of long term commitment; and
  • Resentment of colleagues who don’t have to carry such a heavy load.

There are several good books on this topic that have been recently published, including Essentialism by Greg McKeown, The One Thing by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan, and The Power Of No by James Altucher and Claudia Azula Altucher.

By learning to “say no” effectively, we take control of our career, our life and our emotional state.  However, saying “no” is much easier said than done, and it can be very difficult to maintain positive relationships at work while actively cultivating the habit of saying no.

While there isn’t a one size fits all approach to the art of saying no, there are several things that we can do that will help to maintain a positive relationship with our colleagues (particularly those in seniority to us).  They are detailed in the book Influence, a very famous national bestseller by Dr. Robert Cialdini.

Here are three tricky cases for saying no, and Cialdini’s advice on how to navigate the situation.

  1. When dealing with a “reciprocal” request: A reciprocal request is when someone asks us to do something after having given us a favour, or concession of some type.  Saying no under these circumstances can be tremendously difficult because, by saying no, we are violating the unwritten rules of fairness. They gave us something, we are supposed to give something in return.  Cialdini suggests, in this context, that if avoiding the original favour causes more harm than good, we can navigate this request by analyzing the nature of the favour – is it a genuine favour (no strings attached), or is it a sales device intended to manipulate you into doing something for them?  If it is a genuine favour then you can say “no” in good faith provided you are willing to help that person in the future (and hence fulfill your unwritten obligation).  If it is a sales tactic, then you are released from the obligation of reciprocity because it was never genuine in the first place.
  2. Saying “no” to something we’ve previously committed to.  This could also be called the “politician’s death trap.”  As a society we reward consistency.  A political candidate who changes her mind is often seen as flaky, instead of thoughtful.  As a result, if we have previously committed to something, saying no can be a seen as a self-declaration of weakness – something most people would prefer to avoid.  There is a way out of this, and it requires our looking at the nature of the commitment.  Emerson once famously said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The key word in this phrase, as Cialdini notes is “foolish.” Being consistent is generally good, but a foolish consistency is something to be avoided.  Here we should trust our gut. Often sales tactics (think Timeshares) are devised to get us agreeing to several initial statements, so that if we say no to purchasing, we feel conflicted (in that we aren’t being consistent with what we’ve previously said).  However, our gut knows that we will regret saying yes. We should follow it.
  3. Saying “no” to an authority figure: This perhaps is the most difficult of all (at least in a work context). How do you say no to your boss? Obviously this one is ripe in peril because a poorly timed “no” can be seen as insubordination, and could cost you your job.  So if it is clear that you find yourself in such a case it is usually a good idea to just say yes.  However, Cialdini gives several tips for saying “no” that may come in handy.  In some cases the authority isn’t really an authority at all.  They may have a higher status to you, but they have no ability to take away your job.  They are hiding behind a guise of authority because they know how influential it can be. In these cases you should ask yourself whether you trust this person or not.  If you don’t, and they don’t have any real power to take away your job, then even if you say yes to their request they still might stab you in the back in the future, so the risk of saying “no” is significantly mitigated.

About the Author

Ryan Clements is a business consultant, sales trainer, speaker and writer. He consults to companies and entrepreneurs on marketing and sales strategy, and is a frequent speaker and trainer in the areas of sales, marketing, entrepreneurship, productivity, leadership and motivation.  He also writes widely on these subjects and has published a book and given a TEDx talk on career fulfillment, a topic which he speaks often to schools and students about.  For speaking, consulting or training requests please visit his website at www.ryanclements.com.