8 Ways to Say No at Work
It’s very common to hear people complain how much their work stresses them out. No matter how competent you are, it’s not an easy task to handle high-pressure jobs, week-in and week-out. If you have a demanding boss coaxing you to work more (whether in subtle or not-so-subtle ways), that can be another stress factor that you don’t want to deal with.

No matter what the work culture in an organisation, the fact is that most people are very nervous about saying no to their bosses. Which employee in their right mind would like to come across as negative and de-motivated?

Yes Or No

Does a No Always Have to be Negative?

It’s important to understand that saying no does not always need to be considered as being negative. If you have been working hard, generally complete your fair share of work and put in your best at your office, saying no to an excessive workload portrays positivity and honesty.

On the other hand, if you decide to grin and bear it, don’t forget that you are only adding fuel to the fire. It may not seem to have an impact in the short term, however, it will impact your productivity and performance in the long run. So how do you say no in a clear and polite way?

How to Say No at Work

1. Pause and think

When you disagree with something your boss is saying to you or asking you to do, don’t bow down to impulse. Before you blurt out that “no,” think calmly about what is being asked of you. Be objective in your approach and understand whether your boss is asking something that is possible or is being unreasonable. After that, if you still feel that you want to say no, go ahead and do it.

2. Use tact

This is something you should use with caution, as it may not work in every situation. For instance, you can say “yes, but…” and you will definitely find that this works far more effectively than a direct no. Regardless of whether it relates to your boss’ decision about adding to your workload or a corporate one that involves you and your colleagues, the “yes” bit of your response indicates that you have not dismissed their point and that you have listened and understood.

The “but...” indicates that you’re interested, but that you want to point out the problems you perceive and present an alternate solution. This approach is indicative of your positivity despite the fact that you are, in fact, contradicting the decision.

3. Point out that more work results in less productivity

You know exactly how much work you are currently handling and what your capacity is. If you are being overloaded with work, it’s important that you tell your boss that additional work pressure will only impact your productivity. Just like in the case of the previous point, it’s important that you use the “yes, but…” technique. The trick is to directly link your no to enhanced productivity, and the negative tinge will automatically fade away.

Work Overload

4. Transfer accountability to your boss

If you are already working at full capacity, you shouldn’t hesitate in making your boss shoulder responsibility for the additional work that is being thrown at you. Maybe you can say, “Of course, I’d be happy to take on this new project, but I already have A, B and C on my plate. Which task would you like me to push back while I tackle the new one?” Notice that you aren’t saying no to your boss at all, just doing so indirectly by making him accountable for burdening you with additional work.

5. Be vocal and transparent

This is a very important aspect. A lot of people are vocal about their opinions in the workplace but only when they are with colleagues. If one of those colleagues rats you out, it is bound to put you in a very bad light. It’s much better to speak your mind when you are speaking with your boss and tell them what is possible and what isn’t.

That way, you leave no scope for miscommunication and misinterpretation. If your boss knows from the outset that you expect clarity and are communicative, you won’t find it very difficult saying no when you need to. It will also help you judge the right time when you can say no to your boss.

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6. Explain your decision

There could be times when personal circumstances or your health doesn't permit you to take on more workload. In situations such as these, instead of just saying an outright no, make sure that you explain your decision very clearly.

That way, your boss won’t attribute it to a casual behaviour or de-motivation. They must be made aware that your decision is important for your health and well-being. Keep in mind that no boss will be comfortable with directly expecting any employee to compromise their health or well-being for work.

7. Be unapologetic

When it comes to being firm and putting your foot down, it’s important that you're unapologetic and make your peace with the word "no”. If you buckle, your boss can take it for weakness and your no will also sound weak and ineffective. Even as you do this, it’s important to say it kindly, that way it leaves the door open to all further communication. After all, you will still have to come into work and report to the same boss, so there is no point in straining your relationship with them.

8. Develop courage

Saying no requires a lot of courage. What you should keep in mind at all times, however, is that no one at senior management levels ever got to those positions without saying no to their own bosses at some time or another.


Finally, there is one more important thing to keep in mind - think about whether your boss really wants only “yes” people around him. Many bosses appreciate employees who can think independently, are confident, speak their minds and take a stand when the situation demands it.

Therefore, that occasional no will definitely place you in a much better light, rather than a constant “yes”. Once you get accustomed to it, saying no can truly be empowering. Activia's assertiveness training courses go a long way in giving you the confidence to recognise when to say no and the best way to say it - to see how we can help you, click here.

Want to Be More Assertive?

Activia offers online, public and onsite courses to match your needs.