Saying No

For those of you who have read my profile you will know that I work for a large, FTSE 100 company , in the UK.

I have worked for this organisation for more than 15 years, and in that time I have seen a lot of new faces, so I have developed a little list of advice that I tend to give new starters.

First on the list; “You must learn to say no.”

I know it sounds weird, but saying no is an essential part of getting things done.

I Can’t Say No To My Boss!

I get it, we’re professionals, we all have jobs and we all have bosses that we want to keep happy, and saying no is perceived as bad, as negative, we are all terrible at no. We want to be seen as positive go-getters, people who can deliver, blah, blah, blah.

But let me ask you this, if you say yes to everything, how do you possibly hope to get it all done? And even more importantly, wouldn’t your boss rather you were doing the things that added the most value, rather than just doing the most recent thing that’s turned up on your desk or in your inbox?

Saying no is core to all of the things that help us be productive, it is key to prioritisation, it is central to Essentialism, it is how we can Get Things Done.


Essentialism tells us that what’s most important is to deliver value, Lean tells us this, indeed the law states that the purpose of an organisation is to deliver maximum value to it’s shareholders, and how do we make sure we’re doing that? By focussing on the things that are important.

We have to filter out the things that aren’t delivering value so that we can concentrate on the things that are. We have to learn to remove the noise, the low or no-value items that are clogging up our days and our minds, so that we can focus on delivering what is truly important to ourselves, or to the organisations that we work for.

If we are unable to say no, then we have no means of doing this, we are beholden to the will of others, or to circumstance, we are not in control, we will never be able to take ownership of our time.

Saying No Without Saying No

But, you’re right, saying no is hard, so how can you say no without actually saying no.

There’s various approaches that I have used in my time, but by far the most effective is a simple question to ask anyone who is asking something of you; “When do you need that for?”

When someone asks you to do something, if you ask them when they need it for, you suddenly find you can negotiate. They will give you a deadline, and at that point you can say no, without saying no; “I can’t do it for then, but I can do it for x.”

In the decade I’ve been using this approach, I can honestly say that over 90% of people will, at this point, say; “Oh, OK, that’d be great.”, and you’re done.

Just make sure you deliver when you said you were going to.

What about the ones who say “No, I really need it.”? You ask them what it is they would like you not to do, in order to deliver the thing that they are now demanding you do, do. In other words, you ask it clear that your time isn’t infinite, and you ask their advice and guidance on what goes in order to make space for the new task, you do not simply try to do everything.

Another example when it comes to meetings is simply, “I have another appointment then, but I can do x.”, notice that I’m not telling the individual what the other appointment is, mostly because it is none of their business, it’s My Time.

Saying No With Saying No

Sometimes you straight up aren’t planning to do the thing, sometimes you take one look at something and think, that’s not worth my time.

When that happens, don’t be afraid to question the value of the task you’re being asked to perform. This can include asking your manager why this task is important. Most managers will award this kind of questioning, as it shows an interest in the workings of the organisation, a manager who says something like, “Because it just is.”, isn’t worthy of the title.

If your manager can’t explain the value of the task, then you’re in a prime position to say no to it, if the person asking you isn’t your manager, then you could just tell them that it’s not a venue added use of your time.

Of course, you can always just say a straight “No.”, I often term it as “I’m not going to do that.”, or “That’s the least value added thing I could do with my time.” Remember, if you’re going to say no directly, then be direct. It’s not a negotiation, lead no room for discussion, if you feel strongly enough to give a straight no, then make sure it’s final.

We All Want a Good Perception of Ourselves

Most people think that being seen as the kind of person who says Yes to things is essential to other people having a good impression of them, but wouldn’t you rather the seen as the person who does the right things, rather than being seen as the person who tries to do every thing?

Getting a reputation for delivery will drive a good professional perception more than getting a reputation for being the person who takes on everything and delivers very little.

2 thoughts on “Saying No

  1. Pingback: (In)Flexibility

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