Workplace Reputation

By Sharon Naylor

July 21, 2014 5 min read

If you're good at your job, your managers and bosses might ask you to take on additional tasks. Since you're reliable, you're the go-to person in the office. But saying yes to too many projects at once could overwhelm you, leading you to not perform well and perhaps take away from your life at home with your family. So, to maintain your excellent performance at work and still have a life outside the office, you'll need to learn how to say no at work without hurting your professional reputation.

This can be difficult if you've long been a people-pleaser, unable to say no to requests from family and friends. You want to be helpful, liked, admired and maintain strong relationships. You fear that saying no could lead to your being labeled selfish or rude, or it could be a clue that you are overwhelmed, not the picture of competency you'd like to paint. You may also worry that saying no could lead to a missed opportunity such as the ability to advance or build advantageous relationships.

But saying no is actually the best way to free yourself up so you can say yes to more promising projects, says Adam Grant, author of "Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success." He explains that saying yes to some people some of the time and to only some requests makes you a "giver." And you will likely find that your carefully chosen yesses lead to your being seen as a reliable person who delivers above and beyond what is promised.

Here are some of the best ways to say no at work without damaging your reputation within the company:

*Delay Your Answer When Asked

Cynthia Jaggi, founder of the wellness website GatherWell, suggests asking yourself whether you're in a "good place to answer" right now. "You might be tired or stressed out, in the middle of something else," which is the worst time to make a decision. Rather than answering immediately, let the requestor know you have to first assess your schedule to see if you can fulfill the task, and then ask yourself if you have the time, skills, resources and motivation to take on the task. Jaggi suggests asking how the organization will benefit from this work and what sorts of opportunities it might open up for you. Figure these answers into your overall assessment, and you may find that this request is one you do wish to take on. If the request doesn't pass muster because, for instance, it would strain your time, you should say no.

*Refer the Request Out

Grant suggests saying that this task "is not in my wheelhouse," meaning, your specialties, "but I know someone who might be helpful." Then, by directing a potentially advantageous project to a colleague who would be excellent at it, you'll be a team player.

*Suggest a Different Role

Grant suggests saying, "I'm not qualified to do what you're asking, but here's something else," which is where you can offer your strengths, such as recommending website resources that might be helpful. If the request is outside your area of expertise, taking it on could hurt the project, but if you offer to bring your assets to the table, you've said no to what won't work and yes to something that will.

*Say No Diplomatically

This is not a message for an email. Have a conversation with the requestor to first thank him for thinking of you for this task and then explain why you'll have to say no. "I really want to do a good job on (your current project), so I won't be able to take on (what you've been asked to do)," you could say. Then offer additional ways you can help on a smaller scale, such as reviewing the report. Being helpful even after a no builds your reputation as a team player and supportive employee who has the wisdom to recognize when taking on too much would be detrimental to the company's goals. If the requestor gets pushy and demands to know why you can't handle both projects at the same time, a diplomatic response may be, "For several reasons, I need to pass on this at the moment." Then end with "thank you" and reiterate that you'd be happy to help in a support role right now. You can say that if your current project wraps up early, you'd be "happy to check in to see whether there's anything else I can do to assist."

Start with small noes such as invitations to lunch and build your skills so you're comfortable saying no without feeling like you need to over-apologize or worry about the negative ramifications of turning down requests. Trust your instincts and you'll soon be able to tell which requests can be passed on and which would be missed opportunities.

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