SLAUGHTER: Learn how to say 'no' at work

September 19, 2009

For most Hoosiers, work is the process of accepting responsibility. Ambitious employees actually pursue more duties, perhaps because they believe putting in long hours is the fastest route to promotion and career advancement.

Whether we do so out of fear, greed or a sense of duty, relentlessly volunteering for more work is one of the worst choices we can make at the office. Instead, we must bring back a term we’ve intentionally forgotten: the word “no.”

It might seem like declining a request from a colleague or a supervisor is a terrible idea. After all, don’t satiated co-workers make for happy co-workers? But there’s something more to the rat race of work than receiving and executing directives. Great organizations don’t just do, they ask why and learn to do better.

The reason your boss wants you to complete a research project is the same reason your colleagues wants you to help them find a missing client file. From the vantage point of the person asking, the work has to be done. If anybody helps out, they believe the task will be completed more quickly, thus benefiting the organization overall.

But this argument ignores perhaps the most fundamental aspect of modern work: specialization. The human resources specialist is not an information technology expert; the graphic designer is not an account manager; the receptionist is not a sales representative; and the vice president of finance is not a copy editor.

Yet when you ask a cube-mate to look at something wonky on your computer, to e-mail the client with an update, to call a prospect with a new promotion, or to edit your memo to the board, you are unconsciously denying their years of effort in becoming a highly focused expert. You are requesting they do something they really don’t know how to do.

Unfortunately, most of us are on the receiving end of workplace assignments. We end up accepting the task. It takes us longer than a qualified expert and we probably don’t complete the work to the same level of quality. Since we did finish, we are not incompetent, but we’re not exactly a competent practitioner, either. Instead, we are countercompetent, stumbling over the finish line long after one would expect and with many bruises and false paths along the way. This is no way to work.

Instead, we must learn to sometimes say “no.” This can require a bit of spin. Try these lines on for size:

“I’d love to help you out, but that’s really not my area of expertise.”

“Absolutely! But I have to allocate some extra time to learn how to complete this task. Is this what you’d prefer?”

“I really feel honored that you are asking me, but I have to admit I’m probably not the best choice for this project.”

“Do you mind if I research this a bit before I give you an answer? I don’t want to say ‘yes’ unless I’m sure I can learn enough about the field to complete this task correctly.”

“My schedule is full, but I’m happy to shuffle it around to learn more about this project and try to complete it. Can you help me decide how to prioritize?”

Each of these suggestions guides the process from issuing a request to having a conversation.

If it’s a task that’s already part of your job description, completing the work is just a matter of finding time. But if you are assigned work that’s not something you were hired to do, it’s an opportunity to discuss why it benefits the organization and whether you are the best person to do the work. That’s a sign of true loyalty: a commitment to success stronger than your own personal pride.•


Slaughter is a principal with Slaughter Development, an Indianapolis business-process and work-flow consulting company.


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