How to Say “NO” to Additional Work

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If you are like me, you are by nature not the type of person that says “no” easily. Of course, saying “no” to additional work is a particular challenge. We often feel obliged to say “yes” to tasks that someone wants to assign to us at work, no matter how realistic or well-funded the task allocation is. How can you start saying “no” to additional work?

  • Work on your MINDSET: if you yourself are not entirely convinced that saying “no” is a good thing, neither will your superiors!
  • Prepare and train yourself to say “no” in a well-founded, firm yet polite manner. 
  • Pause or even ask for time to reflect on whether you can do the additional work or not.
  • Learn how to package your “no”: strive for being 100% professional. Be firm and polite yet not apologetic.
  • When possible, present alternatives and give your superiors a choice.

Now, let’s dive deeper into the subject.

1. Work on Your Inner Voice and Shift Your Mindset

Oftentimes, the first reason why we find it difficult to say “no” is because of our underlying beliefs. For instance, saying “no” to someone may seem rude to us. And saying “no” to additional work may seem rebellious. In order to be able to start saying “no” to additional work, you FIRST have to INTERNALISE the fact that very often, SAYING “NO” is a GREAT THING.

Say “No” to Protect and Preserve Yourself

The little voice in our heads goes “well, you have to do the work. You have no choice. You signed a contract and get paid for it, right?” But when you signed a contract, you did not sell your soul and health. You got recruited for a certain position and a certain type of work. And to work a certain amount of (NOT unlimited) hours. That is the first thing you should not only realise, but internalise.

YOU ARE ALLOWED to say “no” when work wanders outside certain boundaries.

Say “No” for the Sake of the Whole Team and Employer

We now have tons of studies showing that saying “no” is vital to good work and, eventually, profitability. Research has shown that multitasking and high levels of stress are extremely detrimental and lead to low quality work. Additionally, in his book The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life, Shawn Achor explains how employees’ happiness levels are directly correlated with the company’s profitability. Some experiments even show how unprofitable businesses dramatically turned around and became successful when the company started focusing on raising the levels of employee happiness.

That is great proof that YOU ARE A VERY IMPORTANT ASSET of your company!

Therefore, I would argue that as a “good” employee, it is YOUR DUTY to determine when your workload becomes too heavy to be dealt with qualitatively. You are the one who knows best and needs to take the initiative to say “no”.

Knowing When and How to Say “No” Leads to More Respect

As Greg McKeown, the author of the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less explains it, one is often afraid of saying no, yet when done well, this actually leads to more respect from others. It is much better than a half-hearted yes, or even worse, a “maybe” that we already know is going to turn into a “no”. Being clear with others and honest about your commitments and priorities also makes their life easier. They know when they can count on you, for sure. Also, by saying “no”, you show how – as an adult – you are able to take FULL RESPONSIBILITY for your actions at work:

  • You know how to say “no”. This implies that when you do not want something or cannot do something, you will be able to say so.
  • You only say “yes” when you want to do something and know that you also CAN do it.
  • Hence, when you say “yes”, we can count on you.

Remember that others NEVER have all the SAME INFORMATION YOU HAVE at hand. So, even at work, it is YOUR DUTY TO EXPLAIN what is possible or not, and why.

Take Action: Reflect, Be Mindful and Embrace Saying “No”

Knowing the above, take 5 minutes to reflect on how you feel about saying “no”. Does it still feel wrong to you to refuse additional work? If so, why?

  • Is it because you feel obliged to do whatever is asked of you at work? Why? Do you maybe have to work on your sense of self-worth?
  • Or is it because you do not want to offend your colleague or superior?

In order to be able to say “no” in a great and helpful way at work, you FIRST HAVE to be clear about all the POSITIVE ASPECTS of SAYING “NO” to additional work. How to Say No to Additional Work

2. Prepare Your “No” or Allow Yourself to Pause

In some situations, you know that you are going to be asked to take on more work soon. Why? Either because it happens very often. Or because your company is under more pressure at the moment. Or there is a specific project that popped up, and management has been looking for some employees to share the burden. Whatever the reason may be, it is great if you can prepare your “no” in advance. Especially when you are new to all this.

Preparing to Say “No”

Start picturing the situation. One of your superiors or colleagues is asking you whether you can take on additional work. There is a certain amount of information you should have at hand before you can answer properly.

1. How is your workload currently? How does it compare to your colleagues?

If you have obviously been taking on more work than average, you can stop right at that question. You need the time to make ALL THE WORK you have already been given well. Just explain this to your superior. You should put the emphasis on the QUALITY of your work and how it will deteriorate if you take on additional work.

2. How important is this work? What are the company’s priorities?

Your superior may insist on this additional work being done. Because it is the most urgent or the highest priority at the moment. Fine! No problem! You CAN do it. BUT make it clear WHICH PROJECTS WILL SUFFER FROM IT. Best is to have a LIST of your projects or tasks at hand. Especially the very important ones. Then you can tell your superior: “I would love to take on this new project. However, at the moment I am already taking care of project X, Y, and Z. But maybe one or two of these are not that important and can be paused until this new project is done? Let me know and I will be happy to adapt my schedule and priorities accordingly.”

3. Is anyone else better suited for this work?

This is always a valid question, which can be very powerful when combined with the others presented above. Someone else in your team or the company could be more suited for this work. Has anyone else the EXPERTISE that would allow them to do the WORK BETTER and QUICKER? Does anyone else have a DOWNTIME at the moment, so that they have more time than you to do this work? ATTENTION: it can happen that you are being asked to do additional work because you are quite good at it. In the past, I have seen the best elements drown under work while other colleagues were barely getting projects. So, at this point, your colleague or superior may tell you that they… “are aware that other colleagues may have more time, but they would REALLY like YOU to do it. Because you are the BEST for this.” It can then become quite emotional for you to say “no“. Why? Because you…

  • …have a high work ethic and think that saying “no” should not be part of your employee vocabulary.
  • …want to impress by being able to do everything you are asked to.
  • …feel like you will disappoint if you say “no”.
  • …think your career will suffer if you say “no”.
  • …feel like a bowling player that has had a perfect strike so far, and you really want to keep it this way…

If you feel like this is YOU, then please go back to point 1. and work on your inner voice and mindset! If other colleagues have the time to do it while you are drowning, they REALLY are the better-suited ones for this additional work!

Pausing and Winning Time to Say “No”

If you are caught off guard and you are not the best “no” sayer so far, your best option is to win time. 1. Learn to pause. Silence can feel awkward. But in my opinion, a huge part of BECOMING an ADULT is to LEARN HOW TO COPE WELL WITH SILENCE. It is totally fine to take your time to react or answer a question. Practice this in everyday life. It is almost worth it to slow down in every conversation. It makes you a better listener, gives more room to others and to reflection. Meditation, of course, can help you make progress on this. Especially mindfulness. 2. If you are not sure, ask for time to reflect Simply tell your superior that: “I would be really glad if I can help. However, in order to make sure I can do qualitative work, I need to first check my current projects and schedule. Please give me an hour or two, and I will get back to you with an answer.”

3. How to Package Your “No” to Make it Easier to Digest

How to Say No to Additional Work The right “no” is all about finding the balance. You should sound 100% professional when about to say “no” to your superior or colleague.

  • You have good reasons to say “no”. Be honest. Explain them simply, clearly and without being apologetic.
  • Present ALTERNATIVES. Give your superior a choice. You have a list of projects or tasks that you are currently in charge of. You are happy to pause or give away one or several of these in order to take on the additional work.
  • Adopt a firm tone, without being harsh. If you sound hesitant, your superiors will feel like you are not telling the entire truth. They will try to push harder for you to take the work.
  • Show empathy ONLY if needed, and do not be overly polite. You should strive for a professional answer.

Keep in mind that most of the advice above will come MOST NATURALLY TO YOU IF YOU WERE ABLE TO CHANGE YOUR INNER VOICE AND MINDSET!!! This is why I highly recommend that you start putting in the heavy work in order to interiorise that saying “no” is a GREAT THING! Truly hope this was helpful, do let me know in the comments whether you were able to say no recently…

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