My manager is standing in front of me, asking me to take on an urgent task that has just come in. It will take a couple of hours to finish, and it’s currently 4.30pm.
I finish at 5pm, and she knows this.
I can stay back a few minutes, but not long. Leaving at 5.20pm will result in me driving across town with my hands gripping the steering wheel while I pray for green lights.
I will arrive to collect my children right before day care closes. I will be grumpy and frustrated. I will snap at the kids.
I do not want to do this, to them, or to me, but how do I say no at work?
I know my husband is too busy to pick up the girls today, and everyone else in my team is overloaded. In fact, we’re all getting fractious because we’ve been under too much pressure for too long.
I am the only person in the team who has children, and I know that other people work back more often than I do. I do not want to whine about family obligations in an open office, but nor am I able to take on two hours’ work this evening.
All of this flashes through my mind while my manager looks at me, waiting for an answer.
I look at my watch. I’m aware of the time, but I’m making a point, and buying some time.
What to do?
I look my manager in the eye and say, “This looks like a couple of hours work. I can stay until just after five this evening, but then I will have to collect my kids. I start early so I can have a draft on your desk when you arrive. That will mean that this report I’m working on will wait until later tomorrow. Does that work?”
My manager thinks for a moment and then agrees. She wants to review the urgent task at 10am tomorrow morning, and the report can wait.
Whew! I’ve negotiated my way out of this mess. Would you like some pointers so you can do this too?
Here’s how to say no at work:
- Use positive language. Instead of saying “I can’t …”, focus on what you can do
- Clarify the deadline. My manager wanted the task done that day, but really needed it by 10am the next morning.
- Re-negotiate other tasks so that you don’t overload yourself
- Consider the options. Consider other team members, and their workload, and what flexibility you have
- Balance your needs, and the needs of the people relying on you, with the work requirements
- Ensure the task is urgent, and make sure you understand the impact of not meeting the deadline. We can work to frantic deadlines because one person made a promise to another. Sometimes expectations just need redefining.
- Manage your feelings. I wanted to help but I refuse to feel guilty for saying no, and I refuse to be stressed and late
- Communicate as an equal, and do not behave as though you are doing anything wrong
I used to say ‘yes’ to almost everything, and be seen as the go-to person to get things done. That gave me some satisfaction but I became exhausted, and resentful of people who were better at managing their time.
It was difficult to change this situation, but eventually I decided I had to do something. I made a fresh start when I returned from leave, and I changed my manager’s expectations.
Here’s how I made it easier to say no at work:
- I made it clear that I have obligations outside work
- I gave regular, gentle reminders that I need to leave on time most days.
- I did not fall into the trap of working back regularly. Working extended hours on a regular basis makes your colleagues believe these are your regular hours. It then becomes difficult to leave work on time.
Don’t let yourself become a slave to saying yes all the time. You can take back your control, and gain respect, by learning how to say no at work.