Saying no in the workplace takes practice

If you genuinely need to pass on a task explain your reasons clearly

If you say yes to every request at work you’ll most likely end up overstretched and grumpy. If you say no every time you’re asked, you’ll get a reputation for not being a team player. In any workplace it’s a fine line between being co-operative and getting dumped on.

The kneejerk reaction to being asked to do something else when you’re already flat out is often a short-tempered “no”, which raises the temperature of the encounter. What works better is to hit your mental pause button and buy some time by asking if you can respond to the request later.

Use the breathing space to take stock. Does the person asking actually know the extent of your workload? Do you need to explain why the task or the timeframe is not feasible? Could other work wait or be delegated if this task is to be given priority? Could you get some assistance with it?

Finally, would it be worth doing because it’s a good opportunity to demonstrate your skills to your boss or to rub shoulders with others who could help advance your career?


If you genuinely need to pass, explain your reasons clearly. Point out that you already have a lot on your plate, and that, if you split your time, neither job will get done properly. Say you regret not being able to pitch in (or you could offer to help in a smaller way) and then stick to your guns. If you dither a more forceful personality will try pressing your guilt button. Saying no is setting a boundary. This is never easy, but it’s a skill that improves with use.

Annette Clancy, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the UCD school of business, has a word of advice for those who always find themselves saying yes.

Extra tasks

“If you’re constantly being asked to take on extra tasks then it may be something about how you are perceived, and time for some coaching or mentoring to help change your behaviour or improve your self-esteem,” she says. “People pleasers, in particular, find it very difficult to refuse a request, and can end up feeling exhausted and stressed out.

“Saying no doesn’t come naturally for most of us, especially in a work situation because we have genuine fears around damaging relationships with our boss or co-workers,” Clancy adds. “Refusing is especially hard in organisations with an always on yes culture. If you find yourself in this type of 24/7 situation, you have to decide whether the stress is worth it.

“The self-employed typically find it very hard to refuse requests in case they don’t get asked again. But if you’re good at what you do then at some point you have to trust that the quality of your work and reputation will get you repeat business. Learning how to say no assertively but not aggressively is a critical survival skill.”

Joanne Foley is a regional manager with Matrix recruitment where increased demand in burgeoning areas such as financial services and engineering saw the company's business grow by 17 per cent year-on-year in 2016. But growth brings its own pressures, and Foley says there are always multiple tasks competing for her attention.

Recurring pattern

“Juggling demands is part of any manager’s role, but if you’re asked to do something additional outside your remit, I think you have to take time to respond,” she says. “What you don’t want is to play into a recurring pattern featuring the same colleague looking to unburden themselves of mundane, cumbersome or challenging tasks time and again.

“In this scenario diplomacy has to take a back seat. Being assertive is the only way forward. It can also be disheartening saying yes all of the time, particularly if you feel you are advancing someone else’s career at the expense of your own.

“Sometimes people ask you to so something without thinking if another colleague is better suited to help. I’m not suggesting you pass the buck, but you should have no hesitancy in talking up another colleague’s genuine skills or expertise. Ultimately this could result in a better outcome for all.

“A refusal should not hinder your own career prospects nor should it present you as an unhelpful colleague. Capacity and committed are great words to use when you want to say no but you’re not sure how.”

Foley points out that sometimes it’s absolutely right to say yes, but think first about why you are being asked to help. “Is it really a show of confidence in your ability? Sometimes the reasons can be great for your ego, but little else.”


Before you say no:

– Ask for time to assess the request.

– Is it reasonable or unreasonable?

– Is it feasible within your workload?

– Could someone else be asked to do it?

– Is there an upside to doing it?

If you say no:

– Reject the task not the person.

– Explain clearly why you can’t fit it in.

– Frame your response in neutral not emotional language.

–If you feel like “ask me” is written large across your forehead, get help learning how to use the no word.