How to Say “No” and Get Away with It

You know the drill. The boss says, “I need you to . . . .” or your team leader informs you that everyone else decided that you’ll be one to . . . “ or maybe a new initiative comes down from above without warning. In every case, you’ve already got too much on your plate. You may feel like people are dumping. Inside, you want to yell, ENOUGH!”

But it’s the boss, or the team, or someone else you feel you can’t refuse. But maybe you can. After all, there are only so many hours in the day and most of them are supposed to belong to you. So, here are three strategies for doing what some people think is unthinkable – Saying “no” and getting away with it:

Challenge the delegation with a reasoned and rehearsed response.The last thing anyone should do is simply tell the boss “No.” But after you’ve accepted the assignment, revisit the situation when the time is right. Here’s how – Begin by thinking through why you shouldn’t be completing the assignment. Too much on your plate? Is there someone better qualified or can complete it more efficiently? Maybe you’re concerned that with so much to do, you won’t be able to do your best work. You get the idea. Then develop your reasoning for saying “no” and offering an alternative outcome. Make it succinct. No one likes a big long story.

Rehearse what you’re going to say to make sure it comes out the way you want. Finally, approach your boss, team leader or whomever. You might begin with, “Could we revisit the project you assigned me yesterday?” or “I have a concern about the assignment you gave me yesterday.” Anticipate how the person might respond and be prepared to defend what you’re asking for. Hopefully, the delegator will consider your reasoning fairly and work with you to ameliorate the situation.

Ask the person to prioritize your tasks.It is not uncommon for supervisors to lose track of how much they’ve assigned. Diplomatically asking them to prioritize the tasks on your plates will remind them of your work load. You might begin be saying something like, “I was doing some thinking about the assignment you gave me this morning. I have three other projects in process. Where would you like me to fit this task into my priorities?” Then wait for them to consider the question. If you are given an off-the-cuff response like, “I don’t know. Just get it done,” this is a red flag. Ask for clarity about time commitment, deadline, specific outcomes and so on. Hopefully this will result in you getting some breathing room. If they do it again, repeat this process. Hopefully they will get better over time about how they delegate to you and everyone else.

Approach the person about your overall workload and commitments. There are times when you simply have to confront the situation. Be careful, however, to consider the perspective of the person assigning all these tasks. You have to offer options and solutions. Appearing to simply complain will not be a successful strategy. Take some time to consider how to best rearrange your work to ease the stress and make you more effective. Then present your ideas in such a way that demonstrates that you will not be adding to your supervisor’s burden, yet easing your burden so you can work more effectively. You might consult with a couple of trusted individuals, asking them to help you think through the best way to do all this. There is no guarantee that your supervisor will go along of course. But if he or she sees that it is in everyone’s best interest, you’ll have a better chance of success.

As with any strategy, effectiveness is all in the execution. These tactics certainly won’t work every time. But it’s worth the try if you want to reduce your decision fatigue and find more balance.

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