Saying ‘no’ in the workplace is a necessary skill

A girl putting her hand up and saying no to someone handing her more paperwork when she has her hands full with paperwork while smiling politely.
(Megan Dang | Daily Trojan)

It could be your first day or your fifth year. Your boss approaches you and asks you to complete an arduous task that was not in your job description. The feeling of dread creeps up on you. You know this assignment will mean nothing but late nights and added stress. The pressure to please is overwhelming though, and you begrudgingly agree. 

There exists immense pressure to be a team player in the workplace. What does it mean to be a team player? Maybe it means coming in on weekends, staying late or taking on the most menial tasks with a smile. No matter the specifics, one thing is for certain: The team player never says “no.”

These expectations threaten workers’ personal time, work-life balance and wellbeing. Every employee should feel safe setting appropriate boundaries. But boundary-setting doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Saying “no” is a skill that we must practice, just like anything else. With time, it should become possible to achieve a better work-life balance and resist the urge to sacrifice time and mental health to please others.

But how do we say “no” without coming across as argumentative or difficult? “Explaining your reasoning will give you a much better chance of having your ‘no’ be well-received and agreed upon,” wrote former Forbes contributor Ashira Prossack, former Forbes contributor. “You always want to provide a sound reason, not an excuse, as to why you’re saying ‘no.’ This helps the other person see things from your point of view and respond more rationally rather than reactively.” 

As Prossack explained, you want everyone involved to agree with your decision. And before they can agree with you, they need to understand why you’re not the right person for this task. Perhaps it’s planned for a day you’re not scheduled to work, or maybe you haven’t received enough training to carry out the task. An explanation goes a long way in softening the “no” and identifying the core problem. This allows your supervisor to either amend the task (i.e. change the date to one you’re actually working on) or find someone who’s a better fit to take it on. Give your supervisor the opportunity to rectify the situation and adjust the role.

The earlier you advocate for yourself, the easier it’ll be to establish boundaries. Your employer may very well be testing your limits to see what they can get away with and how much they can add to your plate. If your reasonable and well-communicated “no” is treated with anger and refusal, it might be time to look for a new job or a department transfer.

Being an advocate takes time to learn and it’s hard to do in the moment. If you need a minute to collect yourself and formulate a reply, it’s also okay to say something along the lines of, “I’ll need to get back to you on that.” This type of reply is easier to say than an outright “no” and it helps to break the habit of a knee jerk “yes.”

Workplace culture relies heavily on the “no” stigma and that has to change. Normalize saying “yes” when it’s appropriate and “no” when it’s not. No job is entitled to your personal time or sanity.