Ultimate Account Blog

Is Saying "No" in the Workplace an Acquired Skill?

saying "no," skilled employees


The South Central Pennsylvania workforce is known for its strong work ethic, which has its origins in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture.  With the rise in residential and commercial development and the decreasing farmland, people often lose sight of this cultural influence. Nevertheless, it is always there below the surface coloring our approach to life and work in particular, which sometimes makes it difficult to say “no” in the workplace. However, we know that always saying “yes” to work requests can lead to negative, unintended consequences.

In addition to the area’s changing physical landscape, the workplace of today is dramatically different from just 20 years ago. With increased position requirements, tighter deadlines, and a competitive environment, we expect more from others and ourselves making it harder to say no to colleagues and customers.  One might even say it is an acquired skill.  Employees are often afraid to say no for any number of reasons including:

  • Fear people will view us as lazy or not a team player
  • Fear of disappointing someone
  • Fear of lost future opportunities
  • Fear of doing a poor job
  • Fear of replacement

Assess the Work Required

The fear factor is real and palpable in many cases. However, there are ways of mitigating the fear of saying no. Before reactively saying no, take a moment and consider what the work involves on various levels.

First, begin with an assessment of your situation. Assess your current workload and prioritize the items on it. Is the task long and involved or does it require a minimal investment of time?

Next, who is making the request? Is it an internal source or an external client or customer?

Lastly, are you the best person for the task from a skill level? Does the request meet your long and short-term development goals?

Answering these questions will bring perspective on whether to accept or decline additional work.

Offer Alternatives

Whenever possible, provide alternatives to the person requesting your assistance. You may have time to do a portion of the work before turning the project over to a coworker to finish. For example, you could do the initial research for a project and give it to a colleague to compose and issue a final report.  Another possible option would be an offer to review the draft of the report before issuing it. In both instances, you have not accepted full responsibility for seeing the project through from start to finish, but you have offered alternatives that would contribute to the project’s completion. You remain a team player.

As for customer requests, they can be particularly challenging. Is this a one-time job or a long-term project?  What are the long-term ramifications of declining? Once again, offer an alternative.  If you are unable to do a task today, suggest a different timetable when you would be able to give their request the time and attention it deserves.  Depending on the circumstances, it may be appropriate to suggest they consider a competitor.  Be honest as to why you are unable to fulfill their request at this time. Misleading customers about why you cannot do something will often come back to haunt you in the future.

Just Say No?

Saying, “No, I’m too busy” or “no way” will not win anyone five stars at their next review. A reply with courtesy and diplomacy will earn you respect, understanding, and keep the career path intact. “Thank you for thinking of me for this work, but I’m concentrating on the XYZ project,”  or “Ordinarily, I would say yes, but given my other work, I don’t feel I could give this request the full attention it would require to do an adequate job.”

When you deliver the answer, remain diplomatic, and resolute. Any hesitance communicated through the spoken word or body language will undermine your resoluteness. Keep your reply as brief as possible because otherwise offering multiple reasons why you cannot do the work seems to be a list of excuses. Be brief, but firm.

Finally, saying no in the workplace when appropriate will allow you to focus on your short and long- term goals and may preserve your career path. Moreover, avoiding burnout and the law of diminishing returns resulting from working long hours is critical to productivity and your well-being. You will gain newfound respect from clients and colleagues for your willingness to say no and provide alternatives to ensure the work is done in a timely and efficient manner.


By Brian Sweigart, Business Development Coordinator

Brian Sweigart, Business Development, Walz Group

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