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. 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.

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.

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. If you balance out your assertiveness with warm professionalism, people will generally appreciate your discerning approach.

Ben Foote, CEO, The Australian Institute of Management

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