Know When to Say No


There will be times in your career when you will be asked to do something or will be offered something, and the best response turns out to be No. If you tend to avoid conflict, your default response may be Yes, but then you over-commit yourself. On the flip side, if you have no problems saying No, you might reflexively decline but then cut off possibilities for future collaboration or a new relationship to develop.

The ideal position is that you don’t default to any one response (whether Yes or No) but instead leave space to consider what is best for you and then respond with a win-win solution for you and the other person. You can gracefully decline a professional request with jeopardizing your career. Here are five career scenarios when you might have to say No and how to decline gracefully:

1 - Requests for free advice

As a career blogger, I receive a lot of questions from readers. These requests for free advice are a welcome imposition, as it gives me fodder for future blogs, the readers get their questions answered, and it’s a win-win for both of us. On the flip side, I am also a career coach who makes a living giving career advice. When I get requests for advice beyond what a blog post can cover (e.g., a highly technical or specialized problem or a request for ongoing mentorship), then I say No to the overall request, though I always point out what free resources can help and what paid resources might also be relevant.

You too can say No to requests for free advice and still be helpful. If you don’t have free resources ready to share like I do, you can set a time limit for how long you’ll help for free. This protects your time in the long-run, while still allowing you to be immediately helpful. Or, you can start a Frequently Asked Questions document using the requests you typically get. Eventually you will be able to direct people to the FAQ document, but in the meantime, every question you answer helps you create a long-term solution.

2 - Recruiter pitches

Even if you are happily employed and 100% convinced you want to stay at your job, there are good reasons to always take recruiter calls. You get market information about compensation or responsibilities at your comparable level that can inform your next raise discussion or performance review. You add a new person to your network, which can help you and other people in your network. If your employment situation changes, a knowledgeable recruiter is a helpful contact to jump start an unexpected job search.

That said, you might be particularly busy at work and do not have the time to meet with a recruiter or further explore the opportunities they are suggesting. You can say No to recruiters without jeopardizing the long-term relationship. Referring other job candidates is a win-win-win – the recruiter gets candidates, you maintain the relationship, the people you refer have a potential opportunity. In addition, you could offer to share the job posting on social media (ask first since it may be a confidential search). You can even help the recruiter refine how they pitch the search by asking insightful questions that you know other candidates would like to know.

3 - Low offers

Some professionals take on additional side gigs as a speaker, blogger or consultant. These are great ways to build your personal brand separate from your current company (check with your employer about their specific rules around conflicts of interest). An added benefit of having these additional income streams is that you can practice saying No to offers that don’t match your expectations.

An offer might not be a good match because it’s outside the work you want to focus on. Or it’s for a company or cause you’re not interested in. Or the fee offered is too low. Keep in mind that a low offer is not necessarily a low-ball offer. If you are interested in the work, you should always try to negotiate (here are five ways freelancers can negotiate a low offer). If you can’t come to an agreement, then say No for now but ask to be considered for future collaboration. Thank them enthusiastically for the opportunity. Refer them to someone else or another solution for their immediate need. Make sure to stay in touch so it’s clear that you’re still interested in future possibilities.

4 - Colleague interruptions

Sometimes you might not have the time to say No (or Yes), like when a colleague interrupts you and sweeps you into what they’re thinking or doing. Now that we are working from home, you no longer have to deal with the chatty colleague who stops by your desk, but you might still be interrupted by a meeting put into your calendar or an incoming email, text or DM that grabs your attention while you need to concentrate.

There are various ways to say No in the moment and still maintain good relations with colleagues. First of all, if you need uninterrupted time, set up do-not-disturb guidelines so your colleagues know not to interrupt you. Block out time on your calendar that you don’t want taken by meetings. They may still invite you but at least you have built in a delay so you can review the agenda and decide for yourself. Turn off email notifications if you can’t resist incoming messages. A longer-term solution would be to sit down with colleagues who interrupt you the most and reset expectations about how they should get a hold of you and under what circumstances.

5 - Extra work

Interruptions from your manager need to be handled differently. Requests from your manager are more like demands (i.e., your reflexive answer should be Yes) and not optional. That said, if a request is outside the scope of your regular work or if the deadline conflicts with existing work or if you notice that your job is morphing into a new role, then you should highlight these issues to your manager.

Even if you can get everything done – your existing job and the extra work – you want your additional contributions to be recognized. If you can’t get everything done, you don’t want to be penalized for your manager’s unrealistic expectations – they may not know how to manage from home, and you will need to renegotiate how you will work together. The key to pushing back gracefully is to remain enthusiastic for the overall work while getting your manager to reprioritize among everything that needs to get done. Many times, you can substitute the new priority project for other work that is no longer needed or can be postponed.

Needing to say No is a good sign. Learning to say No is a competitive advantage

If you have to say No, that’s a good sign because it means you are getting opportunities. Yet, that doesn’t mean you need to agree to everything. You can say No at work without jeopardizing your career. In fact, learning to say No reinforces your boundaries –prioritizing what matters to you, sticking to existing commitments. In this way, saying No is a competitive career advantage, so you can be in high demand and still maintain relationships with your network, with recruiters and with your manager.

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