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When Saying No Helps Set Expectations

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

When Saying No Helps Set Expectations

I personally have had a hard time saying no for fear of missing out on opportunities and damaging my professional image. I think many working professionals can relate to this. However, saying no doesn't have to be a bad thing. Here are four skills I've learned in saying no to additional work in order to help set expectations with key stakeholders.

Be Clear And Concise

If you know you are not able to take on additional work, one of the best things you can do is be clear and concise to the person requesting the work of you, as to why you are not able to help them. Here is an example of how you can respond to an individual requesting additional work of you: "Bob, thank you for thinking of me for this project. I am grateful. I have three priority projects I'm currently working on for the board, the president, and my boss that are due in the next three weeks. I'd welcome the opportunity to be considered for one of your projects again in the future. In the meantime, I'd be happy to share a few individuals who I think would be ideal for this project if you think that would be helpful for you."

This example details three critical success factors: first your appreciation for being considered for this project and that you would like to be considered again for future projects; second, why you are not able to take on the work; and third showcasing other individuals in the company that deserves the recognition. Keep in mind that if you took on this project and don't have the time, resources, and energy needed to produce the quality results required, the impact is worse to your reputation and possibly your career progression.

Set Boundaries

It's important to identify your boundaries to set yourself up for success at work and how people perceive you. What is truly important for you to focus on? Don't look at it as missing out on opportunities, but more about making a choice to open yourself up to new and different opportunities.

Don't forget to sit down with your boss and discuss these boundaries to ensure there is alignment with your job responsibilities. You may need to make some adjustments to ensure you are aligned with the responsibilities that you signed up for. If you haven't taken the job yet, then this is your time to negotiate these boundaries.

Not In My Wheel House

When the request made of you is not in your wheelhouse of experience, but you feel the pressure to jump in to be a team player, rethink that strategy! While it's admirable of you to be a team player, this could backfire on you. There are expectations of you to deliver results within a specific timeframe. If you are not experienced, stumbling to get up to speed, or even making mistakes, this could hurt the quality of your work and ultimately damage your professional image.

Be clear with the person making the request, that this is not in your sphere of experience and you don't feel you would be an asset to the team. However, you would be happy to help the team in areas of your expertise.

Say It The Right Way

The way you say no to a colleague is just as important. Be gracious, respectful, and explain the situation of why you are not able to help at this time. Think about phrases like "I don't" instead of "I can't." Heidi Grant Halvorson is the director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. Here's how she explains the difference between saying "I don't" compared to "I can't":

"I don't" is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It's an affirmation of your determination and willpower. "I can't" isn't a choice. It's a restriction, it's being imposed upon you. So thinking "I can't" undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

When telling your colleague you are unable to assist them right now, offer other ways you can help. Provide tools, resources (i.e., templates, assets, guidelines, processes, documents, etc.), and show how something can be done to assist their project needs. Even though you said no, saying it the right way can go a long ways to being respected. You've got it!


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