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Just Say No

On my cubicle neighbor’s desk at work is a red button.  When pushed it screams “NO!”.  That provides hours of amusement but it’s also a great reminder.  Being able to say No is an important skill.

Saying No is Hard

Saying No is also a hard skill to master.  We’re taught from a young age to favor yes, especially to those in a position of authority.  You would never have thought to tell your middle school teacher no when they handed you work (unless you were the kid frequently in detention), so logically your brain makes the same jump in your future career or business.

Not Saying No is a Road to Disaster

The problem is, not being able to say no is a road to either burnout or even failure.  It’s important to be the go to person at work to get ahead.  That person is usually the first to get promoted.  So saying yes most of the time is the way to go.   In an emergency you want to be the person they count on.   However, if you say yes all the time you’ll end up being the person working all the weekends because your boss comes by your desk at 5 PM with a rush assignment (office space anyone, man that movie rings true on so many levels).  

The same in business negotiations.  If you can’t occasionally say no to your customers you’ll end up spinning your wheels.  The customer is always right, except for those times when they aren’t.  The same goes in purchase and sales negotiations.  Only a sucker can’t say no to an offer from time to time.

But No Should be Used as the Exception

The thing is, in each case you do better if your normal stance is Yes.    The lesson here is, you really need to use No as a very selective tool to get ahead.  Don’t be afraid to use it, but not over use it.  So how do we determine the exceptions for when to say no?

Reasons to Say No

Well the obvious no case is if it causes you extreme problems.  No one should expect you to do something that extremely negatively impacts you.  Say your employer asks you to go on a business trip instead of your pre planned and pre-booked vacation.  That’s a viable and a definitely needed NO.  If they won’t support you, that is one sure sign you work for the wrong company.  

But the need for no doesn’t stop at things that are extreme issues.  The other reason to say no is for consistent above and beyond requests.  If you let these type of requests go for too long they will become the normal.    The occasional weekend or late night at a job is fine. The occasional comp work for a big customer might also be ok.  But unless you signed up with the expectation that would be the norm if its become every day the answer should be NO at least some of the time.  Even if you just need to say no to reset the norm.

How to Turn Down Requests

The thing is, kind of like the pregnant pause saying no makes most people uncomfortable.  So how to do it best?  Well frankly the best way to say no is to frame it in a way that it hits to something the other person values or believes.  We covered active listening and the usage of shared values in the past    It still applies here.    Telling someone no in the context of how it impacts you will only help if they deal with the same issue and dislike it.  Otherwise it just comes off as an excuse.  Telling them in the context of how it impacts them or in terms of a co-incurred pain point is much more likely to bring about change.

My Recent Experience: How I Say No

Looking at an example recently I had to tell my manager No on some work.  I’ve been working a lot of extra hours recently, as has most of my team.  I signed up for some aspect of that.  However it was becoming the norm.  It was getting to the point where I needed to be two places at once for my job.  If I had said yes not only would my well being have suffered, but sooner or later my performance would have declined.  No matter how good I am I can’t be two places at once. 

So how did I frame this No?  Well I didn’t say I’m burning out due to extra hours.  My entire team is, and while there would be some acknowledgement things would likely not change.  It’s just not that important to my boss.  Instead, I focused on the performance aspect.    The aspect that is important to my management.  The result, the no was accepted and things changed.  No harm, no foul.  

My Job and No,  Avoid Consistent Use of No

Similarly, in my job as a change agent for my company I have to tell people no, a lot.  I get all kinds of ideas, some more respectable than others.  But I also have a limited budget, time, etc.  On a regular basis I and a select few others make the decisions on what actually gets changed.    So I find myself saying No all the time in the context of my position.  I always use the values approach above when delivering the message. 

However, in this example we see the flip side of the consistency discussion.  In my decision to say no I always take into account the consistency of my answers beyond just the viability of the request.   You do not want to be the person that always says no anymore then you want to be the person to always say yes.  As such even if a person I work with has consistently bad ideas, I’ll likely take at least one of the less bad ideas and incorporate it somehow.  Throw them a bone as you may need their support down the road.

In Summary

Don’t be afraid to use No strategically.  If not you’ll be the worlds door mat.  But also don’t become the person known for saying No.  No one wants to work with that person.

Do you have issues saying no?


  1. Money Beagle
    Money Beagle October 24, 2018

    Once I worked for a really small IT services company, so everybody did a bit of everything. My boss (the owner) knew I wanted to do some full project work, including doing the design and setting up the schedule for a big upgrade. I went through it and the client asked if we could adjust the schedule, and I said No, that wouldn’t be a good idea. I explained why and how it would increase the risk, and they ended up being OK with it.

    Later, after the meeting, I asked my boss how I did. He told me that if he had been giving the presentation, he wouldn’t have said No. He would have said Yes. Because that’s what he always did. I thought I’d be in trouble, but he then said that he learned something from me that day.

    That was pretty cool, I must say.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance October 25, 2018

      It’s an important lesson many people never learn. As a boss I would have much rather heard no then yes and a failure to deliver.

  2. Xrayvsn
    Xrayvsn October 28, 2018

    This is a really important concept.

    My girlfriend has an amazing work ethic and picks up everyone else’s slack and usually is the first person the higher ups turn to. Problem was I felt she was taken advantage of by her former company who refused to promote her or pay her for all the extras she did (I honestly believe they committed wage theft on her as they didn’t pay her overtime and she worked many more hours than the 40 she signed up for).

    You are right that if you keep doing extras always saying yes it becomes the norm for the company and you can get abused

    She eventually left that job and found another which seems to recognize her work ethic and productivity much better.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance October 28, 2018

      Sadly not an uncommon story. If you don’t stick up for yourself, who will? Glad to hear she was able to find a better path.

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