How to Say “No” — at Work

Don’t seek to be liked, seek to be respected

One of the biggest lessons I learned during the pandemic was that “no” is the new “yes.” I penned (well, keyed) a piece about it here on Medium that was really successful. Turns out that thousands of people are just like me and struggle with the tiny word. Some reminded me of a maxim they live by: “No is a complete sentence.” I love that. Others responded that they, too, are people-pleasers of an equally problematic magnitude. And many readers asked an important follow-up question: how do I do that at work?

Saying “no” at work is a much trickier task, because the power structure in place is different than that of our social relationships. Yes, any relationship can have a power imbalance. Friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships — they all have power imbalances that we have to negotiate in our quest for love, validation, and acceptance. But, at work, that power imbalance is formal, overt, and kept in place by reporting structures, departments, titles, and salaries. We seek love, validation, and acceptance, even at the office (whether in real life or virtually), but within the work environment, we seek money, power, praise, and…well, health insurance.

I have long been a freelancer because that traditional work power structure doesn’t apply. Yes, I have to pay my own health and dental, unemployment insurance, and taxes — also office, lights, wifi, and the like — to maintain my independent status, but I personally find it a much more gratifying way to earn a living. The playing field is more level, and I am more empowered to write my own rules. That said, I am very familiar with office life, so for those of you who work in a more traditional structure, I offer you some insights:

  1. Establish your power early on in any work relationship. Power struggles at work are very primal. Look at the Stanford prison experiment, and you’ll see that people endowed with power will use it, and many will abuse it. Sorry to be dark, but it’s true. That said, it’s really important to not let those in power abuse your grit, your kindness, or your talents. Speak up. Let your teammates and your boss know how you feel when something makes you uncomfortable. And let them know immediately, even in the moment if you can do it gracefully. If your teammates and your boss know that you are not someone who they can step on, they will ask/request/push/demand far less, and you will be put in a position of having to say “no” far less often. Set your boundaries politely and with confidence. Don’t be afraid to bark back; alpha dogs tend to actually like that. It is one of the qualities that they likely exhibit that got them into a management role in the first place. Key here: don’t seek to be liked, seek to be respected.
  2. Manage up. Being proactive about the parameters of your work — your hours, your vacation, your workload, your deadlines — can help enormously. If your boss is not properly managing the work and then asking you to (a) stay late, (b) do more work than you can handle or want, or (c) turn around work in unreasonable time frames, the responsibility falls on you to manage them. Set a meeting to go over your goals for the quarter, month, and week, and lay out for them what will get done and when. Commit to deadlines that are comfortable for you before they impose them on you. Then, keep them updated regularly on the status of your projects. Most bosses respond positively to someone who manages themselves well (it’s one less thing for them to do), and if they know when to expect a certain work product, you’ll get into a rhythm with them that has fewer surprises — and fewer moments when you feel you have to say “yes” to something you never agreed to. Let’s face it: some offices and some bosses are just plain nuts. You may have to be the grown-up in the room and model organization, management, respect, and boundaries.
  3. Be the consummate professional. For many of us, we don’t say “no” because we feel guilty. Underneath the inability to muster “no” is a belief that we don’t deserve to control our time, our days, and our own life. Woah. That’s a lot to unpack, I know. But if you do your job well, you follow through always, your work product is excellent, you do what you say you will do, and you show up on time, you’ll feel more comfortable saying “no” when you want. Further, make yourself indispensable at work. Always increase your value. It will shift the power dynamic in your favor. If you’re easily replaced, you’ll know it and act accordingly, fearful that the next “no” will land you out of a job. But if you know — in your bones — that getting rid of you would be a big mistake, you hold better cards and will feel more empowered to say “no.”

Of course, none of these is a silver bullet for all your work woes. Examples help. Here are nine ways to say “no” at work (below). Try them out. Beginners, try the phrase. Feel free to substitute the details as you wish. For those of you who are advanced, add “No” before the phrase. I hope these help to make your work life much more manageable.




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Julio Vincent Gambuto is a writer/director, based in New York City. He wrote that Medium essay about the pandemic that went around the world to 21M readers. Follow on Twitter for small thoughts, or here for Medium ones, or his website for large ones.

“Giulio” (It’s Italian.) Writer/Director based in NYC. Outspoken so I can help you make sense of this modern world.

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