How to Say No at Work Without Feeling Guilty
Categories: Work

How to Say No at Work Without Feeling Guilty

Turning someone down is never fun. Whether you’re saying no to a first date, declining a job offer you don’t want, or telling a friend you’re too slammed at work to hang out, there isn’t really an easy way around needing to use the word “no” in your life. One place that it’s especially tough to respond in the negative? The office.

At work, you want to be seen in the most positive light possible, so declining a request is not exactly fun — even though over-committing can lead to generosity burnout. This is particularly true for women, who often fear that not being game for any challenge or task will unfairly damage our chances of being recognized as the competent, driven, and committed people we are. That being said, there are definitely times when you should overcome that fear to say you won’t or can’t do something, according to Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder and CEO of Ellevest and former Bank of America president. Here are four things Krawcheck recommends that you keep in mind when you want to say no at work — plus how to actually bite that bullet.

1. Always put your ethics first. If someone asks you to do something at work that you feel is morally wrong, that no-thanks is a no-brainer. Of course, you want to be known as a proactive problem-solver, admits Krawcheck: “Saying no is hardly ever comfortable, especially when you’re advancing your career.” But she points out, “If things are being asked of you that conflict with your personal ethics or the values of your company, you should push back. After all, a reputation takes a lifetime to build and only minutes to destroy.” True that. If you find yourself in this situation, Krawcheck says her advice is to pause, then respond with something like, “That’s an interesting idea. Let me do some thinking on that and circle back.” You’ll have some time to figure out the best way to handle the situation and how exactly you’re going to more definitively say no — not to mention the opportunity to turn to a mentor, your manager, or the company’s ethics compliance hotline for guidance.

2. If you’re being harassed or treated unfairly, stick up for yourself. “Of course, women aren’t taught that ‘no’ can be a complete sentence,” notes Krawcheck, but in some situations, it’s the only word you need to say. “If you’re blatantly being harassed in a situation like Susan J. Walker alleged in her recent blog post about Uber [more on that here if you’re not familiar with the situation], ‘no’ is the first, last, and only thing you need to say before you visit HR. And if HR is as backwards as she alleges Uber’s was, the trip to make right after that is to the CEO’s office.” Hopefully, you’ll be able to turn up a sympathetic ear sooner rather than later, but ultimately it’s going to be up to you to take the lead — or at least get the ball rolling — on ensuring you’re respected.

3. Try to keep an open mind and push your comfort zone. Sometimes, our initial instinct to turn a project down comes more from being nervous than actually not having the time or ability to take it on. “It can be natural to want to say no to a new thing at work, be it a new responsibility or a new business initiative of which you weren’t part of the initial planning,” observes Krawcheck. “We’re human, so we’re resistant to sudden change.” In other words, your hesitance is only natural! But she recommends trying to make this mental shift: Ask yourself, are you inclined to say no because you’re being asked to step outside the responsibilities you’re already confident about? “If so, look at this new challenge as an opportunity to stretch yourself,” she suggests. “The magic always happens outside your comfort zone, never within it.”

4. Get your reasoning in order. If you’re totally sure you won’t be able to do something, you need to have a logical explanation as to why. “You should have a compelling reason for it, tie it back to business goals, and also be mentally ready for any backlash from it,” advises Krawcheck. This could be as simple as saying you don’t have enough time to work on a new project because your current one takes priority in terms of company strategy, or it could be something more extreme. “I have had the dubious honor of being fired quite publicly — like, cover of The Wall Street Journal publicly — for taking a stand at work,” Krawcheck observes. “I argued for reimbursing clients for a portion of their losses during the financial crisis, on products that were sold as ‘low risk’ but that were in fact ‘high risk’ and lost most of their value. I went against the new CEO of the company in doing so. It wasn’t just that I felt it was the ‘right’ thing to do; I also argued that it would be good for our client relationships in the long run — we’d lose fewer of them. I ultimately won that battle but lost my job for it.”

While this was an undoubtedly difficult situation, Krawcheck definitely doesn’t regret her decision. “Almost a decade later, I’d do the same thing again if I had to,” she confirms. That’s because the most important step is owning what you’ve chosen to do: “If you can present a clear case for why your time will be better spent doing things other than what you’re being asked to do, your manager will be more responsive to your pushing back. Then make sure you own that ‘no.’ If you’re saying ‘no’ to extra or unexciting work, it’s in your (and the company’s) best interest to make a great impact, be impressive, and go the extra mile on the stuff you’d rather be working on.” Put that way, it sounds totally doable, right? When you’re working on projects you care about, it’s much easier to give your all.

How do you handle saying no at work? Dish your stories and best tips @BritandCo

(Photos via Getty)