Workplace Lifestyle: How Saying Yes to No Makes You a Better Worker (and Person)


By Matt Phillips, Career Services Specialist

Most of us are generous with our time. Maybe too generous. We give it to our families, to our friends, to our pets (goldfish, anybody?). And for five days a week—more for some of us—we give our time to our jobs. By this measure, our jobs have a large impact on how we live, how we feel, and who we are.

Ask yourself one question: When was the last time you told somebody (a colleague, family member, or pet) no?

Guy making stinky face

No, I can’t cover for you for coming in late.

No, I can’t help you move this weekend.

No, we can’t play fetch right this second.

Think about a time when you were overwhelmed on the job. Did you have too much work? Too little time? Too much pressure from colleagues or supervisors? We’ve all endured difficult situations in the working world, but let’s challenge the notion that our difficulties are solely influenced by external factors. Instead, let’s reframe our troubles to account for our own generosity. That’s what the word ‘yes’ is. It’s a decision to be generous, a decision to give time.

Maybe the source of our stress is the simple fact that we say ‘yes’ far too often.

While generosity is a great quality—one employers appreciate, by the way—it can also serve as an obstacle to the very happiness and productivity we seek in the workplace. That’s because saying yes too often lowers the barriers of self. In Psychology Today, Judith Sills argues, “No is both the tool and the barrier by which we establish and maintain the distinct perimeter of the self” (Sills, 2013).

The assumption here is that saying ‘no’ is an active preservation of the self. And to do great work for your organization, your team, and yourself…you’ve got to be fully present and efficient.

Here are four respectful ways to say ‘no’ in the workplace:
  1. Think about it, seriously:

    Man looking pensiveIf a colleague or supervisor asks you to complete a task or undertake a project, challenge yourself to think critically about whether you can (or should) take on the work. If your answer is no, make sure to provide a positive and assertive reason like, “I’d love to help with this, but taking this project on will diminish the rest of my work. Will you please consider me for the next project?”

  2. Say it to a face:

    Female consulting her doctorDon’t respond with a ‘no’ via electronic communication. Make sure to talk to colleagues or supervisors in-person when you must deny a request. This method assures them that you have fully considered the request—you are simply unable to say yes. Try saying, “I can’t do it, but I wanted to talk to you about it face to face.”

  3. Pull a switch-a-roo:

    group in casual discussionAsk your colleague if you can help them by some other means. Make sure you’re being realistic, honest, and genuine. To say, “I can’t help you” is to err, but to say, “I can’t help you with that, but I can help you with this” is divine.

  4. Be excited (and vocal) about your goals:

    Online student working on laptopIf you are straightforward with colleagues about your goals, you establish a set of professional boundaries. This transparency makes it easier for you to remind others (and yourself) that you have stuff to do. “I’d love to help with data analysis, but my goals are more focused on marketing this quarter. Is there something I can do for you in that realm?”

Try something revolutionary—say ‘no’ once in a while. You might find that saying no—if you do it right—makes more room for…YES!


The Power of No. (2013). Psychology Today. Retrieved 23 April 2018, from