‘Saying Yes to Saying No’ — When Does It Work at Work?

No matter what industry you work in, chances are likely that you have too much to do. Up to three-quarters of companies say their employees feel overwhelmed, according to research from Deloitte. But when you’re hired to do a job, it’s not so easy to push back on your boss or colleagues about your overstuffed plate of responsibilities. While “saying yes to saying no” has become a popular buzz phrase, does this tactic really apply in the office, and if so, when and how can you leverage it?

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In a recent ” HBR IdeaCast” podcast from Harvard Business Review, host Sarah Green Carmichael posed an interesting question specifically about the work environment: “We often blame ourselves if we’re feeling overstretched, like ‘God, I should just be better at saying no.’ Is that realistic? I mean is just declining to take on more work a realistic solution?” The answer is, sometimes yes and sometimes no. You can say yes to saying no — but you need to understand when it works in the workplace and when it doesn’t. Here are some pointers on pushing back on your workload without pushing yourself out of a job:

Understand the full context of the ask. Some marching orders are merely busywork that will keep you from carving out time for higher-priority projects. Yet other assignments that initially may seem burdensome will actually help you get ahead in your career. Before determining whether you want to attempt bowing out, first figure out the context of the request. Will what you’re being told to do help you gain more visibility higher up in the organization, or give you a stretch opportunity to showcase your leadership skills? If so, it’s probably worth trying to fit it in. Instead, see if you can delegate or move something else off your plate that’s less likely to result in advancement or promotion.

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Determine if declining will help your team or company. If you’re used to being a “yes” person and feel that it boosts your reputation at work as someone who gets things done, it may seem counterintuitive to say no to certain appeals for your time and attention. However, in many jobs, you’re hired as much for your judgment as for your ability to produce deliverables. If you know that spending your time doing something your supervisor wants you to do is actually going to hurt your team — for example, by putting you behind schedule in other critical areas or keeping you from being able to work on a key initiative — make that point clear.

If you can show your boss that your team or company will be better off if you decline a task, you’ll be much more likely to gain support for skipping it. One tactic that can support your assertion is showing a written prioritization of specific individual, departmental or team goals. By providing this visual reminder of what you or your group have already committed to in terms of larger priorities, you can help gain buy-in for declining to take on something different or additional.

Figure out if you need more resources or time. Another good reason for saying no at work is simply because you don’t have what you need to do a good job. Whether you’re short-staffed, underfunded or have been given a ridiculously short time frame for completion, you need to let your boss know when lack of time or resources will make it difficult or impossible for you to do what’s being asked of you. Don’t wing this one — use actual data to try to prove your point, such as:

— Hour estimates for scope of work based on similar projects that your department previously has done

— Breakdown of projects into roles and tasks to show need for more staff or new positions

— Lists of tools or equipment, as well as budget estimates, to prove the need for additional resource requests

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In addition to exploring the issues above to make your decision, you should also consider whether you’re being asked to do something that’s unethical. While it can feel hard to challenge the authority of a boss or other higher-up, if you sense that the request compromises your integrity or isn’t appropriate, press pause on the assignment and seek a second opinion. A mentor, HR or legal advisor may be able to shed more light on whether you need to set a firm boundary and say no to the questionable task or action.

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