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Work & Purpose

How to Say ‘No’ at Work Without Losing Your Job

5 tips to tell your boss you have too much on your plate


(This article previously appeared on Careerealism.com.)

Have you ever had experience with a toddler who has just learned the power in the word “no?” It is an impressive sight to see, isn’t it? The child who has just decided that he or she has the power to deny any request has tremendous power. There isn’t an adult on the planet who can question the power behind the word “no” when dealing with a recalcitrant tot.

Given that we learn the power of “no” at such a tender age, why do we lose the power to use that word by the time we are working adults? Most of the job burnout that is symptomatic throughout so much of our workforce is undoubtedly the result of an inability to establish healthy boundaries and an apparent unwillingness or an inability to say “no” at the appropriate times.

Let’s face facts, however. Given how easy it is to get fired these days, sometimes fear is what drives one’s (in)ability to assert boundaries at work.

Let’s face facts, however. Given how easy it is to get fired these days, sometimes fear is what drives one’s (in)ability to assert boundaries at work.

I believe that some of us also don’t say “no” because we mistakenly believe by refusing to do so, we can make ourselves indispensable. Consider for just a moment, however…if you were to drop dead (God forbid) in the next five minutes…someone somewhere would wind up taking on your workload. No one is indispensable. That is just a fact.

Here’s my clarion call: It is time to establish reasonable and healthy boundaries at work, if you haven’t done that already.

Below are my five tips for saying “no” at work when you have too much on your plate — without giving offense and without conveying the mistaken notion that you aren’t doing your fair share:

1. Make sure you don’t say “no” to every request.

To build credibility and trust, you may need to take on the occasional additional task so when you do say “no,” your supervisor or manager will know you have a good reason.

2. Don’t be defensive and don’t over-explain.

If you have built a reputation for being a good worker who is willing to take on extra duty on occasion, you don’t have to fall all over yourself explaining why you can’t take on an extra task on occasion. Don’t feel compelled to provide lengthy explanations or rationale. Just state your case and leave it at that.

3. Offer to trade-off tasks based on priorities and their level of importance.

Sometimes things come up that feel — and are — more urgent than other times. If your company is suddenly faced with an unexpected expedited deadline that requires you to step up, then offer to put something else on the back burner or trade off with someone less encumbered to see if that is a possibility.

4. Always say “no” in person.

When you have been asked to take on extra responsibility but don’t have the time, don’t make the mistake of rejecting the request in an email. Instead, arrange for a face-to-face meeting. You may wind up negotiating an agreement that suits both you and your boss. An email interferes with the possibility of such negotiation.

5. Make sure you are using your time wisely.

It would be a mistake to refuse a request that might either help you be perceived as someone who deserves a promotion or could result in a raise. Avoid wasting time on meaningless activities so you can, perhaps, have time to work on a sudden, unexpected project that could showcase your talents and abilities.

I understand — sometimes it is hard to say “no” at work. You want to be perceived as someone who can do it all. The fact is, however, that you cannot do it all, and there is nothing to be gained from your feeling that you have to say “yes” to everything when it doesn’t serve you.

Attempting to “do it all” will ultimately impact your health or your general sense of well-being in a negative way.

Take time to learn to say “no” with grace, judiciously and with thoughtfulness. You will be better off in the long run, and so will your employer.

By Kitty Boitnott
Kitty Boitnott is a former educator turned career transition and job strategy coach specializing in working with teachers who are experiencing the painful symptoms of job burnout. She also works with mid-career professionals from all walks of life who find themselves at a career crossroads either by chance or by choice. Learn more about Kitty at TeachersinTransition.com or at Boitnott Coaching.com.

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