How To Just Say No At Work
Antonio Guillem/

Learning How To Just Say No At Work

You get a lot of requests, right? Emails, phone calls, voicemails, and office "drop bys" from vendors, co-workers, and your boss. They all want your help with something and you want to say "yes". After all, you want to help. And, let's face it, when you say no at work is uncomfortable.

But here's what happens if you say "yes" to everyone all the time: Your work starts to suck. You get over-committed and your efforts are spread out too thin. Even if you put in the extra hours to accommodate everyone, you're not going to be doing your best work.

Making Peace With "No"

To get comfortable with saying "no," remind yourself why you have to do it. Saying "no" to most requests is really saying "yes" to the projects that most deserve your effort. Remember what you're getting paid for. You can't help your customer or your company if you're spending all your time on low-value projects that don't make the best use of your talents.

A Simple Formula For "No"

Here's a simple, three-step formula for saying no to just about anyone in a professional setting:

  1. Thank them.
  2. Tell them why you can't say yes.
  3. Tell them what you can do instead.

Example: A Vendor

An eLearning vendor just sent you an email requesting some of your time for a product demo. Their offering looks good and you know they're genuinely trying to sell you a product or service that will help you. You're not in the market for what they're selling, though, and you don't want to waste your time or theirs. They're probably a hard-working eLearning professional just like you, so you don't want to just ignore them, either.

Here's how to respond:

Dear [Name of Vendor],

Thanks for reaching out. Your product looks good, but my company isn't in the market for anything like this right now. If that changes in the future, though, I'll be sure to keep you in mind.



Simple, right? You've thanked them. You've told them why you can't say yes. And you've told them what you can do instead. It takes about a minute to write, and the vendor will probably appreciate the response and thank you for your consideration.

Example: A Co-Worker

This one is a little bit harder. A co-worker is asking for help on a project because they respect your abilities. Plus, this is someone you have a real relationship with. They've come to your desk to ask for your help. Here's how to handle it.

Co-Worker: I could really use your help on this project. I really like what you did with that Supply Chain eLearning and I was thinking we could do something similar with this.

You: Thanks! I'd love to help you out on this, but I'm working on the follow-up to the Supply Chain eLearning and I can't take on anything new right now without blowing that deadline. I could help out in a few weeks when my schedule opens up, though, or I could be a reviewer on the project if that would help.

Same formula. You're thanking them for asking, telling them why you can't help right now, and offering some alternative. If they keep pushing, you always have the option to send them to your boss.

Co-Worker: The thing is, I'm getting pressure from the VP of Finance on this project. She wants it to be ready in time for the beginning of next quarter in time for the next employee all-hands meeting.

You: That's a tight spot. I'm working to a deadline on this Supply Chain course, too, though. I wish I could help you out, but I don't have the time. I'd need [Boss's Name]'s approval to delay my course to help out with yours, so you could try talking to him.

Example: The Boss

This is the trickiest one of all. The formula holds here, too, but you owe your boss a lot more information if you're going to offer him or her a "no".

Boss: I need you to help me out with a presentation I'm getting ready for the board next week. Can you make some time to look over my slides?

You: I'm glad you think I can make those slides better, but I'm really up against it with the Supply Chain Course. I'm already putting in extra hours to make that deadline, so I don't know if I could do a good job on the slides and finish the course, which I know is a priority for you. Would you like me to put aside the course and focus on the slides?

Ultimately, your boss is in charge of your workload, so if he or she wants you to do something, you'll do it. By following the formula, though, you're being open and honest about the trade-off. You can pick up the new project if it's a priority, but at least your boss won't be blind-sided when you don't make deadline on your current projects.


Ideally, you're working with disciplined project plans. In reality, however, you're probably expected to juggle many different priorities and deal with new demands in real-time. That means getting smart about prioritizing your time and learning to say no at work. Telling people no isn't fun, and they'll probably be disappointed in the short-term. Over the long run, however, you'll be more productive and the people you work with will respect your ability to meet your commitments.