As a manager or executive, it can often feel like half your day is spent fielding endless requests for your time; and not all of them good.
For example, does this sound familiar?
- Your design team needs feedback on a feature for the company website,
- An old colleague wants to hop on a Zoom call to catch up,
- Someone in your network wants an introduction to someone else in your network,
- A candidate that didn’t work out wants to schedule one more call to collect feedback, and
- An aspiring entrepreneur you’ve never met before wants to buy you coffee and “pick your brain.”
And that’s all by 10:00am Monday morning. The week’s just getting started and already it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of inbound requests.
The fact is that time is your most valuable — and scarcest — asset. And that’s why learning how to say no at work is one of the most important — and most underutilized — leadership skills.
You can’t say “yes” to every request that comes your way. And until you stop trying to appease everyone, you’ll likely struggle to reach your fullest potential.
The Hidden Danger of “Yes”
Saying “yes” to everyone is tempting because it’s easy and — in the moment — it makes you feel better. At the very least, it’s certainly better than saying no and often becomes our default reaction when we don’t want to spend too much time thinking about the “right” decision.
But if you’ve made a habit of accepting every request you get, you know that one of two things tends to happen. You either:
- Fill your calendar with so many urgent-but-unimportant tasks that every day is spent spinning your wheels without making any real progress, or
- You make more commitments than you can possibly keep, leading to unfulfilled obligations and damaged standing in your network.
So when you overcommit, you’re either hurting your business or you’re hurting your network. Continued over a long enough timeframe, this not only burns you out; it burns bridges and loses trust with the people who matter most.
But the funny thing is, most of us already understand that saying “no” at work is important. In fact, most of us don’t even need to be told when to say no. More often than not, we’ve got a pretty strong intuition about which requests should be turned down.
The real problem is that, although we know we should say “no,” we often don’t. So before we can talk about how to say “no,” we need to understand what’s holding us back in the first place.
Why it’s so Hard to Say “No”
On a basic level, saying “no” just doesn’t feel good. After all: Do you like being turned down? In most cases, probably not. We all know from personal experience that rejection doesn’t feel good, so we avoid doing it to others.
But let’s dig a little deeper: When our brain hears the word “no,” it processes that response as a threat. And — as research has shown — when our brains perceive a threat, our amygdala — or the “fight-or-flight” control center of our brain — kicks into overdrive.
While in threat response mode, our creative thinking is limited, and we become more reactive, impulsive, and rash. Although this reaction was vital in the days of our ancestors — when “threat” meant something like a “saber-toothed tiger” — the response isn’t as helpful in the modern world, where the so-called “threat” is simply being rejected.
Although that response may not be rational our brains nevertheless process saber-toothed tigers and rejection in much the same way.
And so, because we don’t want to be perceived as a threat, we often avoid saying “no” in one of two ways:
- We say “yes” to avoid creating an awkward or hostile environment, or
- We simply ignore the request in the hopes it will be forgotten or resolve itself.
Although not applicable in every situation, choosing to ignore a request is often much more viable than simply saying “yes.”
“No” vs Ignoring
At face value, choosing to ignore a request might seem negative or socially damaging. But the truth is, ignoring requests has become so commonplace that, from many social aspects, it’s not only accepted; it’s expected.
For proof, look no further than social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn. From time to time, you’re going to get unwanted Friend or Connection requests. And when you do, you’ll notice that neither network offers a “reject” option.
Instead, Facebook gives you the option to either “Confirm” or “Delete Request,” with the added bonus that the sender “won’t be notified” of the deletion. LinkedIn, on the other hand, takes the more direct route. When you receive a connection request, you’ve got two options: Either “Accept” or “Ignore.”
This isn’t a coincidence. We can practically guarantee both companies did extensive A/B testing to discover whether people prefer to “reject” or “ignore” unwanted requests.
For relationships or requests you aren’t particularly invested in, this approach to rejection can be highly effective because it avoids the unpleasantness of saying (or hearing) “no.”
However, it isn’t applicable in every situation. For example: If the request came from someone you care about, you can’t afford to simply ignore it. In these cases, there’s usually no way around it: You’ve got to learn to say no.
So what’s the best way to say “no” and turn someone down in a way that doesn’t damage the relationship?
It’s pretty simple: Turn your rejection into a relevant source of value by offering a viable alternative. There are a number of ways you can do this, but let’s look at three of the most common.
Say, “No, but [alternative].”
The more successful you become, the more requests you’re going to get. And while many of these requests will lead to mutual value for both parties, there’s a good chance just as many (if not more) won’t be compelling enough to warrant a commitment.
When you encounter requests that aren’t mutually beneficial, be honest: Let the other person know you won’t be fulfilling it; but end with an alternative to help them reach their goals.
The request: “Hey John, any chance I could buy you a cup of coffee next week? I’d love to sit down and pick your brain about leadership.”
The response: “Hi Erin, thanks for reaching out. I appreciate the thought, but my priorities are elsewhere. I won’t be able to meet with you, but I did recently write a blog post about my thoughts on leadership. Why don’t you take a look at that, and ping me back with any questions you might have?”
Say, “No, not right now,” (or “Yes, but not now.”)
Often, you’re going to get requests you genuinely want to follow through on but, for whatever reason, you aren’t able to commit at that moment.
Instead of closing the door, let them know that you do want to help if they’re willing to check back in later. This is effective for two reasons:
First, the other party will appreciate your willingness to help, even if you can’t in-the-moment, and, secondly, there’s a good chance their situation will resolve itself by the time you’re available, negating the need to meet in the first place.
The request: “Hey Erin, would you be free for a 30-minute Zoom call on Thursday? I’ve got a few questions about fundraising and I’d love your input.”
The response: “Hi John, thanks for thinking of me. I’d love to connect but, for this quarter, I’ve decided to focus my time exclusively on helping our company achieve our sales goals. As a result, I’m currently not taking meetings outside that objective. I hope you don’t mind, but why don’t you check in with me next quarter? Things may have slowed down by then.”
Say, “Yes, but not me.”
Occasionally you’ll get requests from those you want to help but, for whatever reason, you’re unable to. In these instances, ask yourself: Who do I know that could help this person?
Then reach out to both parties — the person seeking help and the one that can help — and see if they’d be interested in connecting.
Although you won’t ultimately be the one who fulfills the request, you can still be extremely valuable by offering an introduction to someone who can.
The request: “Hi John, do you know much about CRMs? Our sales team’s growing and we’re looking into a few options. If you’ve got the time, I’d really appreciate your feedback. Would you be willing to meet up for lunch sometime soon?”
The response: “Hey Erin, congratulations on the growing sales team! That’s really exciting. Unfortunately CRMs aren’t my area of expertise, but I may know someone that can help. I’m good friends with Rob Smith, X's Head of Sales, and I bet he’d have some great recommendations for you. If you’d like, I can reach out and see if he’d be available for a quick Q&A.”
A Valuable No is Better than an Empty Yes
At the end of the day, “no” doesn’t have to be a bad word. In fact, used correctly, an honest “no” is often more valuable than obligatory “yes.”
Delivered well, a value-focused rejection is actually a win for both sides: For you, because you now have more control over your time and resources, and for them, because you’ve provided them an alternate (and potentially more valuable) solution.
So, go ahead, learn to say no. You'll feel fantastic about it.