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How to say “no” without damaging your reputation at work

Wednesday, May 30, 2018 - 16:00
AIM Blog - How to say “no” without damaging your reputation at work

Warren Buffet famously said “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” That’s fine if you’re considered the world’s most shrewd and successful investor, but what does that mean for us mere mortals? If we start swanning around the office, saying no to any request that comes our way, we’ll quickly become very unpopular.

At the same time, we’ve never been so busy. We’re forever being asked to do more, in less time. Every day, our inbox is bombarded with emails to answer, and every meeting spawns a new project to be completed.

When we’re under the pump like this, we need the ability to occasionally say “no” to our colleagues. So, how do we do that without seeming lazy, rude or simply arrogant?

Don’t say no straight away

When we’re already under stress, it can be difficult to craft a thoughtful explanation as to why we can’t help right now. We might also have a negative personal opinion of the person asking for help. When we allow our decisions to be made by emotions, rather than logic, we might be saying “no” prematurely, and our response can sound harsh.

If the request has come via email, and you feel your stress levels rising, try parking the email for an hour or two, and carrying on with your work. When you’re feeling relaxed, return to the email and evaluate it on its merits compared to your current priorities. Obviously, this is difficult when the person is standing at your desk, but you can delay your response by politely asking them to send through some more information in an email and tell them you’ll “take a look and get back to them.”

Is it a lifesaver?

Unless you’re working in the emergency department of a hospital, there’s a good chance the tasks you’re being asked to help with won’t save anyone’s life. However, you might be required to help out with a task if it’s been specifically requested by senior leadership, and it needs to be completed quickly. In these scenarios, the new task takes priority over your regular work, and you’ll be enhancing your reputation by helping out.

Otherwise, you need to ask how urgent the task is. A good approach here is to be transparent about the projects you’re already working on, who has requested them, and when they need to be completed by. This is about going one step beyond “sorry, I’m busy”, as most people will be completely unaware what your current priorities are.

Who could do a better job?

This might sound like handballing the job off to someone else, but sometimes that might get a better result for everyone. You can even frame your “no” as a tentative “yes” by saying “I’m more than happy to help out with this, but I feel like (colleague X) would be able to do a much better job than me.” This indicates that you’re more concerned with the final results, and you’re showing confidence in your colleague.

Be careful not to overuse this approach though, as the person you believe is better suited might not appreciate you continuously adding to their workload. If it’s their particular area of expertise, try asking them first if they can assist, and let the person who’s made the request know that you’ve passed the job on to someone more qualified.

Practice makes perfect

Becoming the ultimate workplace diplomat doesn’t happen overnight. For people who rarely say no to anyone, it can be particularly difficult the first few times. What you’ll find, however, is that people will develop a healthy respect for you and your role if you’re able to confidently and calmly say no when appropriate.

You’ll notice the different reactions of people to the different styles of saying no, and you’ll gradually adjust your diplomatic techniques through trial and error. It’s important to understand that you can’t predict or control people’s reactions to you saying “no”, as that’s entirely up to them. If you balance out your assertiveness with warm professionalism, people will generally appreciate your discerning approach.

Learning to say no is about fine tuning your professional communication skills. You’ll be pleased to know that these are the skills that employers in every industry are looking for. When you combine your experience dealing with people in the workplace with the right training, you’ll be putting yourself in position for long term career success.

At AIM, we specialise in helping professionals like you to develop these highly sought after skill sets with our industry leading range of short courses and qualifications. Request a callback from an AIM Training Advisor today to find out how you can equip yourself with the knowledge and tools you need to perform at your best every day.