• Dina Smith

How (and When) to Say No to the Boss


(Originally published in Harvard Business Review. Image by Bárbara Malagoli)


"No.” It may just be the most powerful word in any language. Still, using it can be equally tricky — especially at work.


When you say no, you might end up disappointing a colleague or your manager. When you say no, you might find yourself standing alone in support of your principles. When you say no, you might be turning down an interesting opportunity, or if you’re new to an organization, you may worry that you won’t be seen as a “team player.”


Saying no is probably worse when you find meaning and enjoyment in what you do. If you really love your job, you may fear that you are missing out every time you set a healthy boundary.


In fact, people who are passionate about their work are at higher risk for burnout precisely because of this. Recent research from Duke University shows that other people believe it is more legitimate to take advantage of passionate employees over dispassionate ones. Passionate employees are more likely to get asked to do unpaid work, work on the weekends, and handle unrelated and demeaning tasks that are not a part of their roles. This tendency springs from two beliefs: that passionate employees would have probably volunteered to do that extra work anyway, and that extra work is its own reward for someone who loves their job.


If you are new to the workforce and trying to establish a good reputation, saying no can be even more challenging. While it may feel gratifying to land a job that is meaningful to you, purpose-driven work can negatively affect your mental and physical health if you don’t maintain work-life balance.


Sadly, I’ve seen this firsthand. My client Tim used to be extremely passionate about his work in patient services at a biotech company pioneering new cancer therapies. Because he enjoyed his job so much, it was easy to say yes to more of it. But over time, this mentality led him to take on grueling hours with limited days off. Now, he’s feeling exhausted, mentally foggy, and disillusioned.


Does any of this sound familiar?


To sustain your effectiveness and well-being over time, it’s essential to learn the art of turning people down. Here are three proven strategies to help you figure out when (and why) it is worth it to just say no — even if you really love what you do. With practice, these steps will give you the confidence you need to feel good about your choices, including your refusal to take on work that doesn’t benefit you.


1) Change Your Mindset.


It’s hard to say no when you feel like work is the most important thing in your life. The first step to gaining a healthy work-life is getting yourself out of that mindset. Here’s how.


First, reassess your values.


Your work may be a priority, but what else is important and meaningful to you? If you aren’t clear about what you value and the other ways you want to spend your time, it will be hard for you to say no with conviction.

Ask yourself: If I had a completely free day or week, with no tasks to check off my list, how would I spend the time? Is there something I enjoyed in the past that I’m no longer doing now because I’m too busy? Are there people I don’t see enough of, and would love to?


Reflecting on these questions can help you realize how many previously fulfilling activities and relationships you might have let fall by the wayside. When you think about them intentionally, you’ll be more motivated to carve out time to take them up again. Even if after completing this exercise, you find your work more fulfilling than your hobbies, remember that to bring your best self to your job, you need to stop doing it from time to time. If this is the case for you, challenge yourself to make your personal life an equal priority. It will pay off.


Next, schedule those priorities into your calendar.


Your Outlook and Google calendars showcase a vast expanse of 24 hours each weekday, giving you the false impression that you have a ton of free time. What is not explicit is the time that you need to sleep, care for yourself, and tend to your meaningful relationships. In a way, your calendar is tricking you.


To better align your time with your full set of priorities and gain a truer picture of the time you have available, add all your engagements (personal and work) to your calendar. Whether it’s your yoga class, time to walk the dog, or a dinner with your family or friends — make sure to plug it into your calendar, as well as a few hours during which you can focus, uninterrupted, on important job tasks. I’d personally go one step further and add your sleep hours in there too.


This will give you a more wholesome picture of your availability and help you assess your bandwidth more accurately before agreeing to take on more work.


2) Identify the opportunity costs of saying yes.


Too often, we say yes without giving enough consideration to what that yes entails. Here’s how to figure that out.


Ask yourself three questions.


What’s in it for me? Before quickly agreeing to the next request or opportunity that comes your way, ask questions to uncover the full commitment required. If your manager asks you to take on another project while your plate is full, for example, assess if saying yes would truly benefit you. Is this a task you definitely shouldn’t pass on as it could help expand your knowledge or skills and benefit your career? Can this task help you show your newly acquired skills or those that your manager may not have noticed?


Do I have the bandwidth? We often underestimate how long it will take to complete tasks. This is known as planning fallacy — a cognitive bias that leads us to consistently underestimate timelines, despite knowing that similar tasks have taken longer in the past. This prediction bias springs from our sense of optimism, but events don’t usually unfold as we imagine. Instead, we tend to run into unexpected obstacles, delays, and interruptions. To limit the effects of this mental error, I suggest adding a buffer of 20% to whatever you think the time required will be. If you determine that a project is important enough for you to participate in, ask your manager if your other priorities can be juggled or offloaded to accommodate the time you will need to complete their request.


What will I have to give up to take this on? Despite our efforts to pile more onto our plates without subtracting, there is always an opportunity cost. If you say yes to joining a new committee, what is the tradeoff? For example, will you need to miss your evening gym class because the team is based in another time zone? Or will you need to attend calls late into the night that could disrupt your sleep schedule? With a fuller understanding of the commitment and a little padding in the schedule, you’re better positioned to consider the trade-offs.


Create a checklist.


As an executive coach who loves her job, I can relate to how easy it is to get consumed by your work. In addition to thinking about the opportunity costs, a short checklist of questions helps me more rigorously evaluate the requests I receive and checks my tendency to say yes.


Questions I ask myself include:

  • Am I the only person who can do this?

  • Will this project move me closer to achieving my top priorities and longer-term goals?

  • If I don’t do this, will it matter in a week, a month, or a year from now?

If I answer any of these questions in the negative, I know that a strategic no is likely in order.


3) Now, get comfortable saying it. No.


Now that you have tools to help you determine when and why you might say no, it’s time to figure out how to strategically turn someone down. Learning how to say no is an ongoing challenge but a skill that becomes easier over time.


Repeat after me. “No.”


Start by practicing in situations that aren’t a deal breaker or close to your heart. Say no when someone asks you to sign a petition. Say no to a social invitation you’re not excited about. Look yourself in the mirror and loudly say no multiple times. It may seem silly, but the practice will help you grow the muscle you’ll need in order to say no in more challenging situations.

Suppose someone other than your boss asks you to take on a new project. You might politely decline by saying, “Thank you for thinking of me for this interesting project, but unfortunately I’m at capacity right now.” Or, if your manager makes a request that has an unrealistic deadline, you might counter by saying, “I am happy to help but given my other work commitments, I won’t be able to look at this until next week. Does that work for you? If not, how can we juggle my other priorities?”


Get an accountability buddy.


High performing, satisfied executives have people in their network who promote their work-life balance and hold them accountable for activities that promote their health. Identify a friend or colleague who can play that role for you. The social support will help ensure that you engage in activities that support your overall well-being, whether that be a sport, hobby, musical interest, or volunteer work.


Share your specific goals with your buddy and establish a cadence for check-ins, such as every other week to begin with. At your check-ins, share your progress and challenges. Talk about which situations were easier to push back on and where you need more motivation. Your accountability buddy would be able to pump you up when you get scared or fall into the “yes” trap again, and you might also use your buddy to rehearse for any upcoming situations where you might need to push back or decline.


By employing these strategies, you will strengthen your ability to say no and safeguard your mental wellbeing, effectiveness, and ability to make a positive impact for the long-term.