Best of IdeaCast: Saying No to More Work

Everyone needs to say no when the work is just too much. How can you say no to work without making a big deal of your colleagues or affecting your career? Sarah Green Carmichael (former host) and Karen Dillon (author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics) discuss the best ways to say no to work when you're overwhelmed.
ALISON BEARD: The HBR IdeaCast is a Harvard Business Review publication. Im Alison Beard.

Work is constantly changing. This is why we are always looking for the most recent research and thinking in management, innovation and leadership.

There are best practices that don't change because we all remain human. We are all feeling overwhelmed at the moment and may be having difficulty communicating our feelings via email, Zoom, or slack. So we decided to share one of our most favorite episodes.

This is the one that teaches you how to say no to someone asking for more work, whether it's a boss, peer or client.

How can you stop adding more to your plate and not make anyone mad?

This Best of Ideacast features Sarah Green Carmichael (former host) and Karen Dillon (author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics). I hope you enjoy it, and it will do you some good in coming weeks.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: Today we are discussing a topic most of us have encountered at one time or another in our professional lives. It is called saying no to more work. Even though this is something we have all dealt with, it's still difficult to say no to a new assignment.

To avoid being a knee jerk no or a knee jerk yes from the beginning, let's examine these requests first before we decide what we should say.

KAREN DILLON : The key thing that you mentioned was already there. It is important to take your time. It's easy to panic about something that seems like extra work and then imagine all the reasons why you can't. It is important to stop and think about the situation. If you are able to say, "Can I look at my schedule to get back to you?" or "Can I think about it and speak with you this afternoon?" We could also discuss the possibilities.

These things give you the opportunity to step back and ask yourself, "Can I really do this?" Everyone, I believe, should be able be more efficient with their time as we get better at our jobs. Your immediate reaction might be "No, I can't." Maybe I can if you really think about it.

This is the first. Think about the second. Is it an interesting assignment for you? Are you putting yourself in the shoes of people you have never worked with and would you like to? Do you think it is a job that will show your manager trusts you or is it too much?

Even though it may seem like an overwhelming reaction, there could be many good reasons to do a little more work. You should think carefully before you answer yes or no. Then, you can figure out how you can do it.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL - What if you're someone who defaults to saying yes all the time? It sounds like these situations are geared towards someone who says no immediately, but should really be saying yes. What if you are someone who says yes all the time?

KAREN DILLON : I believe the same rules apply. They are equally important. If I can only say yes to certain things on my pile, and they are always difficult to decide, then this is the one I must do.

Is it going to open up new opportunities? Is it going to lead me to interesting people? If these are not the facts, I believe you've rethought your thoughts and come up with a different perspective. The same applies. Before you react, default and consider all the pros and cons.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: If you do ultimately decide to decline the request, what are some simple ways to say no? These don't sound mean but also don't sound wishy-washy and leave it unambiguous what you said?

KAREN DILLON : This may seem very basic. It is important to practice saying no. Many of us, particularly those who are naturally high achievers, become accustomed to the institution's yes. Because we are team players, we say yes. We can do it. It's easy to let that slip off your tongue. The worst part is when you think about the consequences.

This is how you can flip it. Now think about it. How can I say no to avoid having terrible consequences? You need to practice in private, and think about two to three bullet points for what you will say. If the person is unsure, they may believe that there is still a chance. A resentful, exaggerated no makes the person feel guilty for asking.

An unfulfilled promise, which is kind of false hope, can make a person feel awful. You need to consider how you can maintain a relationship with that person. How to be firm but also diplomatic and kind. You can also think of ways the no does not have to be negative to the other person.

It might be that I cannot, but I'd be happy if you could be a sounding board or to look at the first draft of your project. It's a binary yes/no. There is a middle ground. I cannot take that whole, but I will find ways to help.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: If you feel that you have too many things on your plate, it might be a good idea just to say "I'm sorry, I'm too busy." Do you think that this phrase will work? Or should you try a different way of saying it?

KAREN DILLON I assume this is a superior or manager or someone who has the right to ask for your opinion. It is not unreasonable or unreasonable to ask you to discuss what you have on your plate. Let's walk it together and discuss what we can do.

You shouldn't feel overwhelmed by a manager. Good managers should encourage you to be flexible and find ways to say no to important requests. A good manager will help you do that.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: It's interesting because there are obvious implications. Compared to talking to a boss or talking to a peer, it is more effective. I wonder if there are differences depending on whether you're a man or woman. You might have to approach the no differently. Is it normal for women to say yes to more office-related requests?

KAREN DILLON : This is a great question. As an anecdotal observation, I believe women say yes more often than men. Also, women are more likely to apologize for saying no than men. Although these stereotypes may seem unfair, my experience shows that they are not. It is important that a woman who is being asked for something doesn't have to apologize. Your no may be as valid as any other no. But, you must also think about how you can say no diplomatically, politely, and firmly. This will make it clear that you are not hostile to the person asking.

Another good thing to do is practice it. These cue words are used by women, right? I really am sorry. It is possible to be sincere and sorry without looking guilty. If you leave someone with the impression that you are still part of their team and can do this specific thing, that's fine. That seems like a fair way to go.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: Okay. You have asked them to do something and they keep asking you questions. Is this something you could take on? If they are relegating to you, how can you force them to do it?

KAREN DILLON : That is quite common, I think. Managers, probably me included, would think the same thing. This will take me 2 hours to explain. It could be done in one hour. It's possible.

As a manager, this is a terrible decision that will end up costing you a lot of money in the long-term. It is your responsibility to ensure that people working for you feel confident, to give them the opportunity, to acknowledge the learning curve and to say, "It might be faster for me to do it this way, but I want you to learn." I will help you, but not for you.

Ask questions. Bring your challenges. I will be there to help you. I will help you find the best way to support yourself, without you having to do it. You can do it, I am sure.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: What happens if you have a subordinate that says no? You want to push them to be more of a yes-person and not reverse delegate to your boss. You want a team player who is willing to take on more responsibility. You, their manager, believe they should be able to take on more. Is it possible to override the no of another person?

KAREN DILLON - I believe you need to first look at yourself as a manager and say, How have I set the tone for them to feel this way? Some people may see my job as X,Y, or Z. I do this. This is what I do well. I don't understand why you ask me to do more. As a manager, it is your responsibility to explain. Maybe that's just a few conversations before you change the culture. We expect you to learn.

This is our job. As you progress, we expect you to become better at each of these tasks. There will be things that have a higher priority than others, and there will also be things that are less important. Here's what you need to do. I expect you to be able to do at least 80% of your work. However, 20% of my work requires flexibility.

Speak it out loud. Talk to the person and have a healthy conversation about it. Then, keep helping them. If they're the type of person they are, they will naturally say no. Let's not forget to help them. This can wait until Thursday. This can be put at the top of your pile.

Are we able to set different expectations regarding the quality of this work versus that of the other? Let them know that they are expected to navigate their own pile. Give them constructive feedback when they do well. Give constructive criticism to them when they don't.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL (OK): That was a very useful answer. However, I realized that my main topic was how to say no more work. Let's just say that if you are being asked to do more often by others, you can learn to say no to those requests.

If you are able to see that this is something I deal daily with, then is there a way to talk to your manager or to reset expectations across the company? We can't always reach Susan when we have a problem. There is a way to have more conversations so that you don't have to say no so often.

KAREN DILLON : That is a great question. If you were the person people go to for answers, then I think you would be a good candidate. It tells me that many people trust you and consider you an expert. Many people regard you as extremely competent.

These are also valuable items. Be careful to not draw too many artificial lines. It is a great conversation to have with your manager. All these questions are common to me. Is this a happy balance? Are you content?

Sometimes, the manager may interfere. Again, I believe in practicing the no. I have X, Z, and Y priorities. You could have me next month, but I can't right now. With your manager's blessing, you can still be part that culture of "I am a yes person." It is easier to enforce if your manager and you are on the same page.

Sometimes, they can interfere with your work. This person could ask you to do y. Sarah is off limits for the next month. After she completes this huge project, she is completely free. But we can help. That's okay, I believe. It is a positive thing, I believe, that people want you to be there.

You should just learn to say yes and no more often. You don't want to live in a world where nobody is asking you to do things that are interesting and challenging.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL (OK) I was wondering if you have come across any common mistakes in managing people, or in researching for the Guide to Office Politics. Is there a certain way people have said no to your? Or were you just as shocked when people said no to you in your research? Is it possible to say no in this way? What should we avoid?

KAREN DILLON - I can remember what used to bother me. When someone said no, I was probably being honest. But as a manager, I had a problem and needed to solve it. If their response was angry or mad, I felt like they were abandoning me. They were acting almost as though they were being forced to answer the question.

You are not asked to. You are not being asked if it is really difficult. Remember that your manager is trying solve a problem. It's probably not your problem. They were hoping that you would solve the problem. It's better to not make them feel guilty for asking. They won't ask you again and that is not good for your career.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL : It's interesting that you tied it to your overall career path. There are stages in any career, especially at the beginning. One piece of advice I received early on was to say yes to all things. This is a common piece advice given to people at the beginning of their career. It's one I found really worked for me.

As you progress in your career, it becomes more difficult to do so. How can you maximize your ability to say yes to every request early in your career but also know that you will be changing over time, even if you remain in the same company.

KAREN DILLON As you grow and improve at each of those things, I believe you will be able to see which tasks are not worth your time and which are worthwhile.

People are often asked to do thankless tasks repeatedly, and I believe that this makes them more cautious about accepting the responsibility. They are administrative or doing something that only the person asking them will know.

You will get better at saying no over time. People often do this because it is easy and they always answer yes. It is not helping the organization by solving a problem no one else can solve or being the go-to person. It is not clear how many people can solve the problem or what their capabilities are.

As you progress in your career, it is better to be selective about things that aren't high priority.

SARAH GREEN CAMICHAEL: It sounds like that, but I think you would agree that it is not a wise idea to say no to a lot of things when you are just starting your career.

KAREN DILLON - I wouldn't do that honestly. If there was a way I could do it in my career, which involves nights and weekends and other things that aren't necessarily reasonable for an employer to expect, I would. However, I was eager to learn and the people who asked me to help, they often knew that I was either doing them a favor or helping them with something difficult. This stuff is worth it in the end.

Helping people solve their problems can help you build relationships. You can turn to them for help. All of it was a good thing. It's a great way to meet new people and learn many things, provided you have the time. One of my first assignments was actually working in a magazine that paid extra for complicated newsletters about mergers and acquisitions.

It was all new to me. It was so hard to learn. I worked nights and weekends. It opened up all sorts of possibilities, as I was willing to learn something really difficult and produce something that no one wanted to do. It was a tedious job.

Because I was able to learn complex subjects quickly, I had great career opportunities at the company.

SARAH GREEN CAMBICHAEL: This is a great example of how being willing to say yes to something not very sexy can really help you and your career. Some of the things that women are asked to do, particularly according to research, is to order cupcakes for the meeting. You could also help out with lobby design, or anything like that.

KAREN DILLON : That's a completely different thing. You should be careful not to say yes to this stuff. Or, perhaps the diplomatic way to go is to invite Adam along? Is it possible to do this together? Can I choose a partner? It's possible to subtly say, "Ill do it this year," but I'm not doing it as an individual woman. I am doing it as a member of a team. Let's add more members to the team. This is something I believe is very important.

People are often unwitting. They don't realize that they are thinking of me in this way. They want you to order the cupcakes or coffee. This subtle way of saying, don't always default to women is subtle. You don't have to be my default. You can solve the problem temporarily. If it persists, I would talk to my manager.

Did you know that 9 out of 10 times you have asked a woman in this department to cater your party?

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: So interesting. I wonder if there was ever a time when someone said no to me and you felt like that person was really good at saying no. Is there anyone you admire who is a no-sayer?

KAREN DILLON : I have had many people say no over the years. It's not like I have too many bitter friends, so I believe that a lot people aren't as bad as they think. Mentally, I believe that it is possible to get over the guilt of not saying yes. You are communicating by saying no, even if you feel guilty. You are not adding guilt to the conversation. You feel bad that you asked.

It's important to be clear and not give up on your dreams. Don't ever say no to your busy schedule. Then let me see you sitting at the coffee machine for an inordinate amount of time or making long phone calls. These are the types of situations where no is good.

If you're honest with me and we have discussed it, and I feel that I understand why you said it and we had the chance to discuss it before you made a decision, then I'm okay with it. Again, make sure to say yes to enough people that they don't view you as Mr. or Ms. No.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL (Yes). It's interesting that you mentioned the hanging out at the coffee machine. There are other forms of work that could be equivalent to that, I believe. If you're too busy to do anything and you say no, but then you send the lengthy email reply to an email conversation that is only loosely tangential. Where do you find the time?

KAREN DILLON : Yes. It is. Important are the [INAUDIBLE]. It could be that you were able to work extra hours or that you arrived early. Keep in mind, however, that saying no to someone can have some personal consequences. They will be looking at you to ensure that it is a trustworthy decision. Are they sure that you meant it? They may believe you if you didn't seem crazy busy.

Keep that in mind. It doesn't matter if you say something. If you say something that turns out to be false, I may even ask the person to retract it. I was not as busy as I thought. Do you have any other ideas? I am truly sorry.

Next time, I would like to be part of the project. Please do so. It seems that I underestimated my workload. That is important. Communication and candor are important, but not without an emotional component.

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL (Yes, that's great advice. Okay. I feel like we are almost out of time. But I feel like it would be remiss if we didn't talk about the larger backdrop. We live in an economy and a world where many people feel that they are working 24/7. They are always connected. How do you view this small, interpersonal skill of managing yourself and being able say no? It could be part of the solution to the larger problem of people overworking, burning out, poor boundaries, and long hours. Does it have any connection to the 50,000-foot view?

KAREN DILLON : Yes, I believe it. You should also set personal boundaries. Maybe they are time boundaries. Perhaps it's 8 oclock in the morning. It is unlikely that there is a material difference in responding to an email at 8 o'clock or at 8:00 the next day.

You need to know your boundaries and stick to them. One of my employees once said that when I sent emails over the weekend it made me feel better psychologically that I was working on the problem. And then, I was like, "check done." I'm not worried about it now.

One of my employees said that I made them feel anxious about doing that. They would then have to do it again on the weekend. Wed get into a lot of arguments. It was not my intention. After she stated this, I stopped sending e-mails to employees on weekends knowingly. They can be sent and stamped with the time stamp to ensure they arrive Monday morning.

There are some things you can do to ensure that your boundaries don't become too rigid. However, this doesn't mean that everyone should have the same boundaries. You need to keep your personal boundaries in place so there is still time for yourself. When I was having my first child, a female supervisor gave me the most valuable piece of advice: Start as you mean to go on.

Meaning, set expectations. I will be leaving at 6:30 each day and all e-mails will be answered by 8:00 tomorrow morning. I will do it. The more you establish the pattern, the easier it will be for people to accept it. They won't expect you to show up at 6:35 or something. Be reliable and consistent, but you should also be willing to start and continue. However, your boundaries may be something that other people will come to understand. That is something I believe it's important to do.

ALISON BEARD - This was Sarah Green Carmichael (ex-host of IdeaCast), speaking with Karen Dillon, former editor and author of HBR.

You can find IdeaCast on iTunes, Spotify or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. There are more than 800 episodes available to help you tackle problems at work, and learn how to lead and manage differently. Do you want us to discuss a particular topic? Send us an email at

Thank you for listening to HBR IdeaCast. Im Alison Beard.


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