Saying no at work: How to politely say now and defend your choices

Saying no is something many people often find difficult – in their private life, but particularly also in a professional environment. They are too concerned that saying no will give them a bad reputation among colleagues or become a disadvantage for their career. In most cases, these concerns are completely unfounded. On the contrary, they are motivated by entirely personal reasons, which can range from fear of rejection to excessive respect for authority figures. However, to be satisfied with one’s job in the long term, it is necessary to set limits. Otherwise, there is a danger of being permanently overworked, which in the worst case may end in burnout.

Of course, one should not reject every additional task. A realistic appraisal of the situation and one’s own capacity helps you decide whether to say yes or no at the right moment. The way you say it also plays a critical role. Harsh refusals or passive-aggressive undertones don’t help anyone. A polite demeanor and diplomatic communication not only make saying no on the job easier, they are also more readily accepted by others.

Why do we say yes?

There are several individual reasons why some employees don’t say no when they are asked to do a favor. Even if it means an added workload for them, they subordinate their own needs in order to avoid possible conflicts or disadvantages to their careers.

  • Career: Many people tell themselves that they will rise faster in the company if they take on more and more additional tasks, believing it makes them indispensable. On the one hand, they are right. Commitment and the ability to work under pressure are usually rewarded, as long as the tasks are also performed conscientiously and are free of errors. On the other hand, it should be kept in mind that this volume of work will presumably also be expected in the future. Therefore, you should think carefully about whether you can manage this in the long term.
     
  • Fear: Much more often, fear is behind the inability to say no. The fear of losing one’s job, the fear of being rejected by colleagues or superiors, or simply the inability to deal with confrontations and to stand up for one’s needs. Refusing requests always involves a discussion with someone else. You have to explain yourself, find good reasons and can still expect to be met with misunderstanding. This is a situation that many people would rather avoid, particularly in a professional environment.
     
  • Feeling of responsibility (helper syndrome): Another reason for not being able to say no at the critical moment is a great/excessive sense of responsibility towards others. Anyone who has this character trait – often termed “helper syndrome,” which has negative connotations – feels bad whenever they refuse a request. A guilty conscience sets in immediately because there is a feeling of having let down colleagues or bosses, and of having put your own plans over the welfare of others. In your own eyes this is pure selfishness, and you do not want to be associated with this under any circumstances. The result is a full desk and, in the worst case, the bitter realization that other people have far fewer inhibitions about putting their private life above their job.
     
  • Perfectionism: Finally, then there are people who simply cannot trust others to do the job as well as they could themselves. They tend to take on too much because they almost monopolize all the tasks instead of delegating at the critical moment, asking colleagues for help or simply saying no when the boss approaches them with the next additional project.

Saying yes has consequences

Whether due to a willingness to help, career ambition or fear – anyone who finds themselves constantly having to work beyond the agreed workload or their own strengths should be aware of the consequences this has.

It may sound harsh, but anyone who cannot say no is taking the easy route, namely the path of least resistance. Such people often shy away from confrontation with bosses or customers. They would rather accept countless hours of overtime than stand up for their values and, last but not least, their health. This does not work in the long term, which can adversely affect their own satisfaction and that of their colleagues, and even harm the company’s success.

Disguised as collegiality and a willingness to help, constantly saying yes can actually result in disadvantages for others if they are measured against unrealistic performance. They are soon reproached for a lack of commitment even though their work does not fall short of what was agreed upon in their employment contract. And employers should not demand anything more from their employees. Anyone who does more than they are paid for, or is required by the work contract, is devaluing their own work.

Fact

Unfortunately it is often the case in working life that employees are passed over for salary raises or promotions because they are not willing to take on additional tasks regularly. They are reproached for a lack of team spirit or willingness to work, although there can be many different reasons. The resulting pressure to justify themselves poisons the working atmosphere and the happiness of all employees.

For whatever reason, people choose to take on overtime and additional tasks, and this has long-term consequences for health. These can include constant tension, sleep disorders, stomach trouble, headaches and digestive problems. In the worst case, there is a danger of burnout, a psychological syndrome that is associated with severe feelings of exhaustion and a sense of being overwhelmed, as well as panic attacks, problems concentrating, and symptoms that vary greatly on an individual basis. Ambitious, career-oriented people, in particular, initially tend to ignore these very non-specific symptoms. As a result, they run the risk that their bodies will take the urgently needed rest for themselves. From one day to the next, they break down, suffer a serious depressive episode and are unable to work for a long time.

This is why it is important to listen to your own body and to give it the rest periods it requires, because only a healthy Work-Life-Balance keeps you fit for work in the long term. Everyone has their own individual breaking point. They need to accept it themselves, and it must also be accepted by employers and colleagues.

Examine the situation – yes or no?

It is difficult to imagine for many of those affected, but they would very likely be treated with more respect if they said no at work now and then. Contrary to all fears, normally this will not be perceived as uncooperative, indolent, or selfish, but rather as a realistic self-assessment by a responsible employee.

The first priority is a realistic assessment of the respective situation. If an important project is coming to a close and everyone is at their limit, that is not the best time to refuse additional tasks. However, if you have always accepted the latest requests reliably and another colleague can complete the task just as well as you, then that is a good time to say no for once.

You should be particularly careful if you notice that your desk is always the first port of call. On the one hand, of course it is flattering to be known as a reliable and helpful colleague. However, at the same time there is a danger that others will take advantage of your willingness to help to make their own work easier. It is also simpler for the bosses to ask an employee to do extra work if they already know in advance that the employee will agree without objection.

Summary

Generally there is nothing wrong with helping bosses and colleagues in difficult situations and taking on more work for yourself. However, you should keep it within reasonable limits. If the pile on your desk continues to grow and has become almost unmanageable, there is a risk that the work will be done quickly but superficially, and that careless mistakes will creep in. By this point at the latest you should realize that it is becoming too much and ask for support and understanding.

Use these strategies to say no at work politely

At this point it should be clear that saying no on the job is not a problem and is completely appropriate in some cases. What is important is that you find the right words at the critical moment and communicate your reasons for refusing calmly but assertively.

The following tips will help you find the right strategy the next time you want to say no – to your boss, to colleagues, employees or customers.

Saying no to your boss

Saying no to managers is one of the biggest challenges on the job. After all, it is often a vote of confidence that they want to entrust you with additional tasks. Added to this is respect for authority figures, which is instilled from childhood and is completely appropriate as long as it doesn't turn into paralyzing fear. All of this makes it difficult to say no on the job when it counts. Nevertheless, it is important to set limits at the right time, before the workload becomes too great. This shows backbone, an ability to use your own resources responsibly and, last but not least, a healthy perspective on your own capabilities – qualities that every boss should appreciate in their employees.

When you want to say no to your boss, to team leaders or managers who are higher up in the company hierarchy than you, calm and level-headed communication is important. In situations where you feel stressed or overworked, you can easily let a gruff response slip out. You must avoid this at all costs. When you are asked to work overtime, take on additional projects, etc., you can first ask for time to think, for example by saying: “Thank you very much for your confidence in my work. However, first I need to estimate how much time my current tasks will take before I can give you an answer.” This will give you the time you need to find good reasons for refusing and to consider the best way to communicate this. It is also good if you immediately offer alternative solutions in the conversation.

Examples:

  • “I would like to help you, but unfortunately I need to complete my own project first. The customer has already asked several times when I will be able to present the results to them.”
  • “In the past few months I have already worked XYZ hours of overtime to help out. Is there any way to divide the task among several colleagues? Then I would be able to take on some of the work.”
  • “I am concerned that I will no longer be able to do my work thoroughly if I take on additional tasks, and my co-workers have also been working overtime for months. Is there any way other teams could support us or we could hire an additional employee?”

Saying no to colleagues

If you want to refuse requests for help from colleagues, essentially the same rules apply. You should never react impulsively or impatiently here either. This will only offend the other person and poison the mood in the team. In the worst case, you will be permanently stuck with a reputation as a hot-tempered and selfish colleague. If you definitely cannot (or do not want to) accept the task, it is better not to simply say no, but rather to offer alternatives. Together with your colleagues, look for a way to make sure that the work is still completed on time. In this way, you show that you understand your colleagues’ situation and demonstrate team spirit.

Examples:

  • “I’m sorry, I already promised colleague XYZ that I would help him with his work.”
  • “I can do it, but it is not my area of expertise and would need some time to familiarize myself with it. Maybe it could be completed faster if colleague XYZ did it. I can relieve him of another task so he is available.”
  • “Unfortunately, I need to leave work on time every day this week because I have physiotherapy appointments after work. But if you still need assistance next week, I would be happy to help.”

Saying no to customers

When dealing with customers you need to be especially sensitive and polite. Communication is usually done by telephone or e-mail, which can quickly give rise to misunderstandings. In the first step, always ask for understanding of the current situation in the company by carefully reminding the customer that the company also has other orders to deal with. But be careful: Never make a customer feel that they are generally less important than other customers! Reminding them of what you have agreed and then trying to find a solution together is essential for trusting cooperation.

Proactively reach out to the customer if you notice that you will not be able to meet an agreed deadline – ideally as early as possible. Offer an alternative deadline and ask about the priorities if you have not defined any yet.

Examples:

  • “I’m sorry, we are at full capacity until the last day of this month. But I will process your request first thing next month.”
  • “I will try to complete it this week. However, that means that I will have to postpone another task until next week. Could you tell me which tasks have a higher priority for you?”
  • “In the contract we specified a workload of XYZ per month. I will have to invoice everything that goes beyond that as an additional expense.”

Saying no to employees

Theoretically, it is easy to say no to your employees as their boss. Ultimately, because of your position, you have the authority to refuse requests. However, in practical terms it is a balancing act, because the wishes of the employees are sometimes simply incompatible with the company's objectives, which, as the boss, you always have to keep your eye on. Therefore, in this position, it is also important to communicate intelligently and clearly in order to be respected as a capable leader. Nothing is worse than a boss who consistently says no, who rejects requests without any justification, simply because their position allows them to do this. What’s better is a communication strategy that makes clear that you understand the employees’ wishes and requests but that you need to turn them down for certain reasons (at the present time). By involving employees in the decision-making process, a manager builds trust and makes an important contribution to a good working environment and to motivate the employees.

Examples:

  • “I can see that everyone in the team is working up to their personal limit. Unfortunately, the personnel budget this year does not allow us to hire any more staff.”
  • “I am aware that you have earned a promotion for your work performance because you complete tasks reliably that are not required from you according to your current job profile. Unfortunately, all positions in middle management are currently occupied. However, I can offer you a pay increase and will keep you in mind as soon as corporate management creates new positions.”
  • “I know that you have a double burden with your school-age children and the current order situation. As soon as this important order has been completed, you can use the overtime you have accumulated as compensatory time off so that you will have more time for your family.”

Summary: The importance of saying no on the job now and then

In all of the examples above it is clear that understanding and respect are vital when communicating with each other. If you feel overworked or treated unfairly due to a request for assistance, whatever your role, you should always make the situation clear to the person making the request. Show empathy. For example, you can communicate that you understand their reasons and in return take a stand by explaining your own situation. The best thing to do is to look for a solution together. This makes saying no at work easier and does not adversely affect the working atmosphere.


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