Career advice

Expert advice: How to say no to your manager and colleagues

Do your manager or colleagues unload too many tasks on you? Learn how to say no to too many – and wrong – tasks in a professional and respectful manner.

by Career Counsellor Ann G. Carøe

Are there tasks I should not say no to? Can I say no to tasks at all? Will this make me the first in line in the next round of redundancies? If I say yes, will I have to compromise on the quality of my other tasks, and might I end up with stress?

As a career counsellor, I often talk to members who find it difficult to say no to their boss or colleagues who unload tasks on them. Below are some suggestions on how to say no properly.

If you can't do this, you'll very likely spend too much time on the wrong tasks. You need to focus on your strengths, your competences and what motivates you. There are plenty of tasks that you do well, but they drain your energy. Once you’ve identified what you do well as well as your strengths and competences, you'll be in a better position to say no to inappropriate tasks your manager and colleagues send in your direction.

Why are you drained of energy?

There may be many reasons that you become drained of energy – even if you're good at your job. Perhaps the job doesn't motivate you, your strengths aren't used as they should be, you're weak within specific tasks, or the tasks are acquired and you've become too good at them.

You can't just conjure up time

Saying no is also about finding your own limits of what you can and want to be part of.

Knowing your competences and strengths and saying no when necessary shows that you respect yourself, and that you take responsibility and prioritise your core tasks. You can't just conjure up time. Taking time from other tasks will compromise their quality.

Keep in mind that saying no to additional tasks enables you to say yes to other more interesting tasks you can carry out with energy and motivation. You’ll have to practice saying no, safe in the knowledge just saying yes to everything doesn’t make you a good employee. The alternative is burnout, poor well-being and stress.

Align expectations with your manager

Sometimes tasks will land on your desk that you can't say no to. In such cases, you'll have to align your expectations with your manager.

Be specific about what tasks you don't have time for. Your desk is now so full that your manager must help you prioritise. Perhaps some of your tasks could be transferred to another desk for a while.

It's especially difficult if you're employed on a fixed monthly salary and your manager thinks that you should spend your evenings, weekends and holidays getting work done. The exercise here is to learn how to say no respectfully.

Don't end up as a grumpy naysayer

 "I'd like to say no thanks to that task." "I don't want to do that task." "I don't have the right competences." "I don't feel I have anything to contribute here." "My diary is full." These are all examples of what you could say when your boss or others give you a new task.

Don’t be afraid to say that something doesn't make sense.  Perhaps your manager doesn’t know that you already have a lot on your plate. You can say no to a task and not come across as a grumpy naysayer.

Saying no to a task is not the same as saying no to the person. You can suggest alternative possibilities. One response could be: "My diary is full, but if you could wait until after Easter, I’d be happy to help." 

The fear of redundancy

There are workplaces in which employees fear the next round of redundancies. People are gregarious – and if everyone else says yes, it's not much fun being the only one who says no. In such cases, you should pluck up the courage and talk to your colleagues about how you feel. Perhaps many of them feel the same way.

Are you willing to accept the consequence of saying no? 

Consider whether you're willing to accept the consequence of saying no – or yes too much.

If you say yes, you know that it'll affect your family and your children's school events, your son's badminton match and your planned holiday. Isn’t saying no better than risking burnout? Remember that you're an employee and you're not a slave to your job.

And if worse comes to worst and you get fired for saying no to tasks with good reason, perhaps you shouldn’t be working there after all.