The art of saying “no” in the workplace: How to say “no” to more responsibilities
Know the saying, “The devil’s in the details?” Well, that’s especially true when it comes to managing your time at work.
Even if you love your job and are happy with your current workload, new projects or tasks can quickly become overwhelming when they pile up too quickly. It doesn’t matter if you have great work habits; every employee has their limits. That is why it’s so important to know when to say “no” to extra work.
Understanding when and how to decline additional responsibilities goes a long way when you seek to increase your productivity, excel at time management, and prevent a possible burnout that diminishes your motivation.
In this article, we’re discussing the importance of turning down extra work in the workplace, the best practices for it, and scenarios in which it’s appropriate to do so.
Why do you need to learn to say ‘no’ to extra work in the workplace?
For a lot of employees, especially those that have just joined a new workplace and are eager to prove themselves to their managers, saying “no” to extra workload isn’t something that comes naturally. Some feel bad about disappointing their boss and letting down their coworkers, some are anxious a client will sever their relationship upon hearing “no”, some don’t want to come across rude and lazy, and some are just so used to saying “yes”, they simply don’t know there are other options. From employee to employee, the reasons for taking on additional responsibilities vary.
But the outcomes of agreeing to tasks you can’t complete comfortably are always the same: increased anxiety levels, quick burnout, and an overall decrease in productivity.
Let’s take a closer look at why it’s important to learn to say “no” to new tasks when your workload becomes too heavy:
- Not saying “no” to extra work can decrease your productivity. When you have too much on your plate, you’ll be more tempted to multitask, which is, contrary to popular belief, detrimental to your work efficiency.
- Not saying “no” to extra work can lead to burnout. Even if you complete the extra assignment you’re asked to doon time, you risk getting too tired and, therefore, resentful toward your employer and job.
Learn how to effectively relax at work to restore your energy in our article.
- Not saying “no” to extra work can give you the reputation of a poor team player. If you agree to take up on an extra task and fail to deliver the expected result, you might ruin your reputation. Besides, as you try to squeeze in another responsibility into a tight schedule, you risk undermining your other tasks.
- Not saying “no” to extra work can cause a snowball effect. By failing to say “no” once, you give off an impression of an employee that can be assigned emergency tasks at all times.
Rebecca Knight from Harvard Business Review have worded it like no one else:
Saying no is vital to both your success and the success of your organizationRebecca Knight, Harvard Business Review
How to politely decline more responsibilities at work [+ examples]
First and foremost, you need to come to terms with the fact that regardless of your seniority level, you can’t possibly do all the work in the workplace. There will always be a few tasks you need to turn down or delegate. And it’s okay — saying no to extra work isn’t a sign of poor time management skills or lacking expertise; it’s about maintaining a healthy work environment and setting appropriate expectations for your work.
So, by turning down certain tasks, you are proving yourself as a responsible employee — you just need to sound confident, give proper reasoning, and do so politely. Let’s look at the best practices for declining more responsibilities in the workplace.
1. Assess the request
Once you master the art of saying “no” and it becomes easier for you to reject unwanted tasks at work, there’s a high chance that you’ll start doing it automatically. This, however, isn’t a responsible and polite approach to maintaining a healthy workload.
Declining all new responsibilities will get you plenty of raised eyebrows and a dodgy reputation. Or worse, it will strip you of the opportunity to advance your career. At the end of the day, not all extra work is a chore; sometimes, there might be something that will be beneficial for you, something you would be willing to sacrifice other, less important tasks for(either ditch completely or postpone). Finally, we’re all human, so every now and then, there will inevitably be force majeure situations when it’s absolutely necessary to take up tasks that don’t fit into your schedule perfectly. So, don’t say “no” until you’re a hundred percent positive you need to.
On top of everything else, giving a request a think (or at least pretending to do so) is the polite way to handle the situation.
Before you respond to a work request with a knee-jerk “no”, ask a couple of questions to find out details about the project your manager or coworker wants you to participate in, and determine how interesting, relevant, urgent, engaging, and exciting the opportunity is.
Here are some of the common must-asks that will help you learn more about the request:
- When is the deadline for this assignment?
- Is this a high-priority task or can it be postponed?
- How much will I have to contribute to the project?
- How much of the task has already been completed?
- Will I get any assistance for this task?
Once you learn more about the extra work you’re asked to complete, assess whether or not you can make some time for it. Here are some of the factors that will help you make a decision:
- How relevant is the task to your role?
- Does it fit with your current priorities?
- Does it fit with your wider career objectives?
- Do you have the time – or are you at risk of burnout?
- Who’s asking? How senior are they and why are they asking for help?
- If you say no, how would this be perceived by the business?
If you can shuffle your schedule and prioritize the new assignment over already existing ones, great — you don’t have to say no to this one. However, if you come to the conclusion that you aren’t available for the job, read on to find out what to do next.
2. Be confident and channel it, not in a rude way
This rule isn’t exclusively intrinsic to rejecting additional responsibilities; you should generally learn how to act confident when engaging with other people. However, confidence is particularly important when it comes to communicating with your manager.
Ideally, you should deliver that “no” with clarity, kindness, and respect. Be patient, and listen attentively to your boss or coworker — let them finish their sentence before you reject their request. All in all, don’t be a jerk about it. The last thing you want to do is make the person asking for your help feel bad about coming to you.
Here’s what to avoid:
- Annoyed sighs
- Facial expressions that express dissatisfaction (yes, you heard us, no eye rolling)
- No grimacing in general
At the same time, however, don’t try to soften your “no” no matter how tempting it might be. According to Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate, “when your no is reluctant, flexible, and malleable, it gives the impression of ‘maybe I’ll change my mind,’ and it encourages your counterpart to keep pushing.”
Aim for a neutral yet confident “no” if anything.
3. Make sure to verbally appreciate the opportunity
As we said, you shouldn’t try and soften your “no”. This, however, doesn’t mean you should be rude about it — make sure you incorporate a polite little “thank you” and genuinely appreciate the opportunity you’re given. At the end of the day, when your boss comes to you with a work request, it means they trust in your ability to do it well.
Instead of a snappy “no”, your rejection should sound more like something along the lines of “no, but thanks for asking”. Here are some ready-made phrases that will help you create that effect:
- That sounds really interesting.
- That sounds like a really exciting task.
- I appreciate you considering me for this.
- I’m grateful you turned to me with this.
Even though these are followed by a “but”, you still express your gratitude and enthusiasm for completing a job.
4. Give a reason; be genuine and straightforward
It’s always easier to deliver your point when it’s backed by something, that’s why the most confident, definite “no” always goes hand in hand with “because”. In fact, when your “no” is followed by a “here’s why”, the person is more likely to understand you quicker and not take the rejection personally.
For the most persuasive reasoning for turning down extra responsibilities in the workplace, you need to know your priorities well and communicate them effectively. Explain what other tasks you’re currently occupied with so that your boss or coworker understands that you’re not just being lazy and actually have something on your plate already.
- Talk about the upcoming deadlines you need to meet.
- Explain the priority of different tasks you’re dealing with at the moment.
- Keep your explanation short and straight to the point.
A simple and sweet “My schedule is busy for the next X days, because I have a very important Y project, which will take me Z days to finish” should be enough.
5. Incorporate several trigger phrases into your response
It’s the little things that make all the difference. If you want to sound more professional and persuasive, make sure you use the right language and incorporate trigger words and phrases into your response:
Another trick is to avoid words with negative connotations when delivering your “no”. Try to steer clear from surrounding your “no” with “unfortunately”, “can’t”, or “sadly”. The use of these words can make you sound overly negative and make the wrong impression.
6. Offer a solution that doesn’t involve you taking on the task
Even if you can’t complete a task, you can still be helpful in one way or another. There are lots of different things you can spice up your “no” with to leave things off on a positive note.
Considering the fact that your boss is turning to you with extra tasks because you’re capable of completing them, you should have the expertise to do small favors that will ease their life. In the majority of cases, there will be a way for you to contribute in an alternative way.
- See if they would benefit from you going over the task to break it down for another person?
- Would they like you to review the project once it’s ready?
- Would they be interested in you volunteering to provide guidance along the way?
- Do they need you to participate in a brainstorming session?
Or, perhaps, you have the resources that would help them complete the task faster and more efficiently — offer to share those!
7. Suggest to delegate and make a referral
The next best thing you can do if you can’t take on the responsibility is to recommend someone who can. That way, you’re taking the problem off both your plate and theirs, which is a win-win situation for everyone involved.
It can either be a colleague who has the required expertise or, even better, a freelancer you can source to complete the task without disrupting everyone’s workflow within the company.
“Could I suggest that X handles this? I believe they have all the skills needed for the successful completion of Y and have previously delivered great results dealing with a similar responsibility.”
8. Always end on a positive note
Earlier in the article, we already mentioned that you should start on a positive note. Now, we’re also claiming that the best tactic is to end on one, too. The sandwich method!
Something as simple as “Thanks for understanding” will suffice!
9. Practice makes perfect
It’s difficult to predict when the next impossible-to-say-yes-to request will come, so trying to rehearse your exact speech beforehand will rarely be an option. However, to sound more confident and not get lost when the time to say “no” comes, you can practice your polite rejections.
Prepare a couple professional sounding phrases and write them down so that you can refer to them later. Practice saying “no” to additional responsibilities out loud, to yourself, or a friend you feel comfortable around.
Eventually, doing so will become easier 🙂
When you shouldn’t say “no” to extra work
There are a few situations in which you should accept additional work:
- A temporary fix during boom times. If your company is in a period of rapid (an unexpected) growth, you may want to take on more work as a way of helping your team stay afloat. They might need you to keep up with the increase in workload before the HR manager finds a new employee.
If you’re looking for effective ways to announce that your company is hiring, check out VistaCreate’s Open Vacancy templates:
- It’s a high-priority task that is more important than the other tasks you’re dealing with. If you can arrange your current workload to be reviewed and replaced with the new responsibility, don’t rush into saying “no”.
- Special occasions. If your company is planning a big project or hosting a special event during the high season (Halloween, Black Friday, Thanksgiving, or Christmas), you may want to take on special assignments.
- The task is beneficial to you. If the task you’re being offered will accelerate your career or be beneficial to you in any other way, you might want to shuffle your current workload to fit it in.
A quick recap: Dos and don’ts of saying “no” to more work
If you got this far, you should already have a solid understanding of why it’s important to sometimes say “no” to extra work, and how to decline additional responsibilities in the workplace politely.
Let’s solidify this knowledge with a quick checklist of dos and don’ts:
✅ DO assess the request before rejecting a commitment
✅ DO evaluate the impact your refusal will have on you, the person requesting you take on extra work, and the company you work at
✅ DO make a compromise
✅ DO show willingness to help in ways that don’t burden you
✅ DO give clear reasoning for your refusal
✅ DO practice saying “no” to extra work in the workplace
❌ DON’T be too reluctant to say “no”
❌ DON’T be rude
❌ DON’T lie about the reason why you’re saying “no”
❌ DON’T compare yourself to others and feel pressured to overachieve and overperform
And remember, in the era of rapid technological advancement, you can always seek alternative solutions and delegate your responsibilities to machines and tools.
Learn about the impact AI is having on design in our article, and give VistaCreate a try to see how your complicated design assignments can turn into quick jobs.
VistaCreate offers a vast selection of different features to make the design process as seamless and simple as possible — there are plenty of ready-made templates, time-saving functionality like background remover, the Brand Kit as Fast Style feature, and more!