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How to say 'no' at work in a constructive way


Saying “no” to your superiors, peers and subordinates is one of the most challenging aspects of the modern workplace.

Everyone needs to say ‘no’ at some point but in doing so you could risk coming across as being disagreeable, disrespectful, or at worst dispensable to the people and the organisation. So learning to say ‘no’ in a constructive and assertive manner can help you in your career.

Declining to do what you’ve been asked to do needs some careful thought and planning, after all you still need to deliver on your own role and responsibilities and saying ‘no’ could affect these. Reasons for saying ‘no’ may be varied; either that the task risks your own performance, that you have very good reasons for disagreement, or for unethical or illegal reasons.

The key point is that you are very specific and clear about what the reasons are and that you get this across in a considered and professional manner.

Here are some guidelines that will help you say ‘no’ in a way that will not seem like an unreasonable refusal.

Build your good reputation
As an employee, you may have little say about the tasks being assigned by your superiors but don’t despair. You can prove your good work ethic, enthusiasm for the job, and willingness to learn by saying “yes” to as many jobs as you can handle, perhaps even a few more. You can, however, ask for guidance in the crucial aspects of the tasks and for assistance in workload prioritisation.

Basically, you must build your reputation as a reliable employee who will deliver. You will then have more leverage when you say “no” to certain tasks for valid reasons.

Ask before saying “no”
Before disagreeing to the tasks being offered by a superior or a peer, be sure to ask the right questions first. You have to completely understand what the tasks involve including the time frame, parameters of accomplishment, and impact of work, among others. You may even ask for a few hours or days to think about the tasks so that you can formulate valid reasons for your refusal, if and when you come to the decision.

Explain your reasons
If possible, you should avoid saying “no” without explaining your reasons for doing so. Your superior or colleague will likely appreciate your reasons for refusal and perhaps even provide assistance in your tasks. Your good communication skills will come in handy at this point.

For example, you can say that you are refusing the additional task because your quality of work will suffer in the process. You may also tell the other person about your future availability or your ability to provide partial assistance on the task.

Offer an alternative
Your ability to say “no” in a constructive manner also hinges on your ability to propose alternative solutions. In a way, you are still providing assistance for the other person without actually putting your entire physical energy and mental effort into the additional task. You are still being a team player, thus, contributing your share into the achievement of team goals.

For example, you can offer assistance on a job-related aspect. You will still be doing your main tasks yet also doing something for the team.

Personally say it
While emails, chats and calls may be convenient, you can soften the blow, so to speak, by saying it in a face-to-face manner. Your email or chat may have undertones that the receiver can misunderstand and having caused the wrong impression will be very difficult to get back on the level you want to be.

Your refusal at work for certain tasks will not be easy but when you can deal with it in a professional manner, it becomes easier.


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