How to Say No to a Work Request

Apr 14, 2015
6 Min Read

If you have a full plate at work but can’t think of the last time you pushed back on a work request, no matter how far afield from your own priorities, you might be taking on so many commitments that you can’t possibly get it all done without exhausting yourself. What’s more, in your efforts to do everything, you’re likely to end up letting some things slip because you’re simply too overloaded to remember it all, let alone tackle everything.

Sometimes it really is reasonable to say no at work – or at least to push back in another way. In fact, a good manager will be relying on you to speak up when you have too much on your plate or when your workload threatens to jeopardize your work quality or accuracy.

Here are five ways to professionally and reasonably push back on work requests.

1. Get clear in your own head about what’s most important for you to achieve, and how much time it will take you to achieve it – and spend some time getting aligned with your manager about that. For instance, you might sit down with your manager at the start of the quarter or the year and say, “My big priorities over this period are going to be X, Y, and Z. I think that will take up 80% of my time, leaving a few hours each week to keep A and B running in the background and a few hours for anything unanticipated that comes up. But it means that I won’t be prioritizing C or D. And if E heats up more than we currently expect it to, we’d need to revisit this plan. Does that sound right to you?”

By doing this, you’ll surface any areas where you might be prioritizing differently than your manager, and you’ll ensure that you’re on the same page about how you will – and crucially, won’t – be spending your time. Then, if a time-consuming request comes your way that’s out of sync with what you discussed, you can go back to your manager and say, “This would take significant time away from X and jeopardize my ability to meet our deadline there, so I’m going to keep this on the back burner for now.” Speaking of which…

2. Have a “someday/maybe” list. Rather than saying an outright “no,” it’s much easier to say, “I’m pretty busy with X and Y right now, but I’m going to add this to my list of possible projects to work on down the road.”

3. Be clear about trade-offs. Remember that if you say yes to something new, you will be spending less time on something else. Be clear with your boss about those trade-offs too. For instance, you might say, “Accounting wanted me to spend a few days researching the Miller account. I can’t do that without moving the deadline for the new web content back by a week, so I think I should let them know it’s not feasible to do right now.”

4. Pay attention to how people you admire say no. You might be wary of pushing back on a request because you can’t imagine how to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate people. Look at colleagues who seem to do it successfully, and see if you can find language, tone, and other cues that you can adopt for yourself.

5. Keep your boss in the loop when you're saying no or thinking about saying no. You don’t want to discover after you’ve already said no that your manager would have wanted you to take it on. Make sure that you’re keeping your manager looped in when you push back on project requests, so that she isn’t surprised if she hears about it later on and so that she has the chance to give her input as well.

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