Management in Action: The Power of No

no-1532826_640In my current job, I have a saying: “We’ll never run out of ideas.” I work with a lot of very bright, creative people and while I really believe this to be the case, it’s also my code for “we can’t possibly implement every idea.”

Nor should we. Saying yes to everything can threaten a core mission and stalls innovation. Steve Jobs hit the nail on the head in 1997:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

For employees who are early to mid-career, saying no to work can feel pretty daunting. But did you know that saying no for the right reasons and in the right way could actually be good for your career? Here are three good reasons to say no at work:

It’s not strategic.

Does the work that’s being asked of you align with your organization’s strategic priorities? If your organization has a plan that clearly lays out the direction of the organization–along with initiatives, tactics and goals that support it –it’s pretty easy to answer the question. If you’ve done a quick check against the plan and the work does not appear to align, that’s a good reason to say no. Chances are you have work that unquestionably DOES align and support the plan, and taking on work that doesn’t endangers those projects.

If your organization lacks such plan, it makes determining strategic value of work much harder. (Real talk: it makes everything much harder. If your place doesn’t have a plan, become the champion for creating a plan. More on that in a future post.)

There are capacity issues.

Time, personal bandwidth and money are finite resources in the workplace, and it seems like we’re often asked to do more with less. These very real constraints mean that not everything can be a “yes”—even super awesome, totally strategic initiatives. Capacity issues can be addressed in a few ways:

  • Adding capacity: overtime, outsourcing, new hire
  • Reprioritization: projects are rescheduled or deferred
  • Project size/scope reduction: scaling down in order to free up resources

If you or your team is at full capacity and none of the above are workable solutions, yes is impossible.

It’s not your area of expertise.

Many of us want to be seen as team players at work and want to come through for the people counting on us. But if you are not the right person for the type work that’s being requested and your lack of expertise can put quality at risk, you should pass.

That’s not to say you should never step out of you comfort zone and learn new skills. If you have the opportunity to gain new experience and the work allows for a learning curve, by all means go for it. Absent of that, it’s best to recommend an alternative.

The Art of Saying No

Now that you’ve got some solid reasons for saying no at work, here are some tips on how to do it in a way that doesn’t risk your reputation:

  • Be gracious. There is a difference between saying no and telling someone to go pound salt. Someone has come to you because they think you are the best person to help accomplish a goal. Acknowledge that.
  • Be a pro. If you are unable to take on the work, be honest and straightforward about the reasons why. Many communication experts recommend communicating in person instead of email to avoid confusion and have some clear dialog.
  • Be open to a compromise. Many times “no” actually means “not now”. Is there middle ground to be had? Can capacity issues be overcome? Getting to the heart of the issue can lead to a solution that is acceptable to all.
  • Be realistic. If you work in a heavy command-and-control environment, it’s not always possible to say no. Choose wisely. Help your leaders understand the barriers that are preventing you from saying yes and be ready with solutions.

In discussing the premise for this post, a fellow GenX Manager pointed out how saying yes actually helps with saying no. He had this to say:

“If you say no for good and solid reasons at the same time you’re doing everything you can to support the requests that you can say yes to quickly, effectively, and professionally, things are a lot easier.  When you’ve demonstrated that you will say ‘yes’ whenever you can and will do your best to help someone out, it is a lot more likely that they will believe and accept your ‘no’”.


The Management in Action series covers a variety of practical management topics that can help GenX managers strengthen their leadership skills. Got a topic you’d like to see explored? Leave a suggestion in the comments. 


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