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When (and How) to Say 'No' at Work

Many of us are compulsive "yes" men and women when it comes to taking on new chores or responsibilities at work. Of course I'll write that last-minute report for you. Why wouldn't I want to track down a logistics problem for a favored customer even though I can't spell logistics? Hire the CEO's nephew for a summer internship? Hey, what other family members can we bring on board as well?

It's all part of being a team player, a can-do resource, the person always eager for new responsibility. It's how you get ahead, right?

But sometimes "Yes I can" becomes a very dangerous game to play, especially if your core job is being neglected as you drift in multiple directions at the behest of others. And if you develop a reputation as someone who always says yes, you'll be Call No. 1 by anyone with a dirty job to do.

I thought about this question while reading Steve DeMaio's post on Harvard Business Publishing, How I Learned to Say No. His method was a little drastic for many of us. He simply quit his job and decided to go freelance. Now he can say no to himself without guilt.

So when is it OK to say "No" to your supervisors or peers? What's the right way to do it?
Well, in my mind you never respond with a flat out "No" unless the request puts you in harm's way or otherwise is clearly out of bounds in the workplace. If the task is work related, but you think it is a poor use of your time, the object of the ensuing conversation is to get your boss or peer to recognize the consequences of what they are asking you to do.

Remember, your supervisor is successful only if you are successful. Same for your teammates. If they load you down with work that distracts you from your main mission, all will suffer. So make this clear.

You might want to observe:

"Mary, thanks for turning to me for this job, but all my attention is focused on meeting launch deadlines for our top two projects. I don't want to risk falling behind." Providing a reasonable alternative also helps, like, "I think Bill is looking to develop more expertise in worthless paper pushing; why don't you approach him?"

Are you comfortable saying no at work? What are your techniques?