How to say no at work without hurting your career

By Cynthia Jaggi

You know that feeling after someone’s asked you to add one more thing to your already full plate? Internally, you start to sob at the thought of more meetings. You think about how to let your partner know that you need to work even longer hours.

It can be difficult to say no because you are passionate about your work. You see each project’s potential to forward the cause. You want to progress professionally and saying yes can seem like the best route.

But the reality is that we can only do so much. So how do you say no in a way that doesn’t hurt your career or make you feel guilty? How do you know for sure which requests to say no to in the first place?

Don’t respond immediately

The first thing to ask yourself when a new request comes in is: ’Am I in the best state right now to respond?’

The worst time to make a decision is when you are tired, stressed out, in the middle of something else, or perhaps just really excited about the topic – and that’s usually when you’ll be asked!

Even if you are new to an organization or early in your career, you can gently let the requestor know that you want to think about the best approach and will respond soon. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated.

Think through the request

It’s always worth taking 10-15 minutes to figure out if you should be spending weeks, months, or even a couple of hours on a new request. To help you gain some clarity, go through the following checklist.

1. Priority fit: What are my top priorities? How does this request relate? If you don’t know what your priorities are, you are not going to know if the new request fits in. Take the time to revisit the most valuable work you do.

2. Capabilities fit: How does this with your skills and expertise? Take into account both your current capabilities and those you would like to develop.

3. Long-term benefit: Where will this work lead both for the organization and for you in the long term? What impact could it create? What opportunities could it open up?

4. Scope: What 20% of the work in this request will produce 80% of the value? It may be that you can help the requester focus on the most important elements and get the benefits by just doing a small part.

5. Resources: What other resources are available? This can be a tricky one – it’s easy to feel like there are none. However, even when there aren’t extra dollars, there often are newer members of the team who might get a valuable learning experience, or volunteers who can help. Also think through past work and available tools, organizations and online resources that could be used to complete the task more efficiently.

6. Timing: When does this work need to get done? If it’s really valuable and needs to get done soon, you may want to say ‘yes’ and highlight the need to take something else off your plate.

Say no, gently

After going through the checklist, if you realize that you can’t commit to a new project, don’t send an email. Instead, have a conversation with the requestor and think of the conversation as a negotiation and a discussion of options.

1. Start with your ‘why.’ For example: ‘I want to do a really good job on X [pre-existing priority], so I’m thinking that it would be better if I supervised [volunteer, other resource] doing Y [new request]. It will also let them learn the process.’ If you are early in your career you could say, ‘I am focused right now on learning to do X really well for the organization, and want to make sure anything I take on doesn’t prevent me from reaching that goal.’

2. Be a resource to the requestor. Give them new ideas and/or resources. They are likely overworked too and may not have fully thought the options through. So offer your ideas about the most valuable piece of the request, when the right time is for the work to happen, and what resources might make it easier. For example, ‘I know you want to get good feedback from staff on X topic. Instead of doing individual interviews, what if we used an online tool to do an initial survey?’

3. Be clear on what’s not negotiable. If it’s valuable work, most likely you’d be happy to be involved, but just in a limited or in a different way. An offer of limited or joint involvement softens the no. So be clear about how you can be involved and, again, offer alternatives. For example, ‘Even though I don’t have the capacity to write [the report, document, presentation] right now, I’d be happy to review it.’

In short, make the effort to turn down what’s not a fit but be helpful on every request. If you repeat this process an amazing thing happens: you not only help others but also ensure your career stays on track.

This article first appeared at Idealist.