Knowing When to Say No

It is no secret that humans are remarkably adaptable. When stretched to our limits, we often find ways to dig just a little bit deeper to overcome obstacles. When we allow ourselves to become stretched too thin, however, we are unable to perform at optimal levels. Once you’re juggling at your capacity, though, it’s time to start saying no to additional requests.

Problems arise in that one has to find a balance between what people need from you and what you need for yourself.

-Jessye Norman

The mere idea of declining or delegating tasks is frustrating for some of us. We want to be able to do it all (and not have to admit to limitations). Commitment to excellence and a drive to succeed are admirable traits, but there is such thing as being prideful. No one can (or should) do it all.

The problem, then, is knowing when to say no. Frankly, you probably can refuse new projects more often than you think, but that’s not ideal either. To help you achieve balance, here are a few things you want to consider when deciding if you should say no.

Quality of Work

There’s no question that when it’s essential, we usually can get something out before the deadline. Often, though, the result isn’t as good as it could have been if we had more time. When we consistently take on too much, however, we can’t ever do our best work. Maybe we can’t even perform at satisfactory levels. Then, we aren’t doing anyone any favors — even ourselves. After all, if the task can’t be done in a way that meets your standards, then you won’t get a sense of satisfaction when it’s done.

According to Harvard Business Review, cutthroat job practices hinder job satisfaction and positivity. This can leads to stress and eventually to burnout. When you find yourself performing less than your best for the sake of completion, you may need to limit your workload. In most skilled jobs, we want quality over quantity.


Imagine you accept a new task when you have a full schedule already. Sure, you’re stressed, but you push through. Maybe the outcome is moderately successful. When that happens, you may be tempted to do it again, and again, and again …

The first few times, the struggle is frustrating. But when having too much on your plate becomes the norm, it can be debilitating. Of course, we all experience stress from time to time. The ability to say no, however, can prevent the chronic stress that leads to burnout.

Research by burnout experts Bob Veninga and Jim Spradley suggests there are five stages of burnout. You need to understand them to help you navigate your workload.

  • The Honeymoon stage when you develop successful or harmful coping strategies that allow you to manage your workload.
  • The Balancing Act stage when you start to feel the stress of those challenging moments. It’s often marked by increasing inefficiency and early physical and emotional warning signs, such as fatigue or dissatisfaction.
  • The Chronic Symptoms stage when ongoing stress begins to result in chronic exhaustion, irritability, and even physical illness.
  • The Crisis stage is when chronic stress starts to impact every aspect of your life, such as sleep, happiness, and health.
  • The Enmeshment stage when you’re likely to be seen as having a serious physical or emotional illness, you’ve reached true burnout.

It’s worth noting that burnout is very rarely if ever diagnosed as the cause of mental or physical symptoms. This is why you have to advocate for yourself by knowing your limitations and being mindful of the stages that lead to burnout.

It’s Not All Your Responsibility

This may seem obvious, but it’s still important to say it aloud. You do not have to accept work that is not your job. Moreover, you shouldn’t if the person responsible for that job is perfectly capable of completing the task. That doesn’t mean you can’t help out occasionally. But habitually accepting work from other people or departments is only okay when it doesn’t negatively impact anyone.

Being a helper and a team player is a wonderful attribute, but only as long as it’s not creating stress and toxicity. Saying yes to gain the approval of others or to avoid confrontation may seem like a sound strategy, but it rarely works out well in the long term. (Not to mention that doing someone else’s job for them can lead to a more serious conflict when supervisors find out later on!)

Support the No

From a supervisor’s perspective, have a team of “yes men” may sound good. But when their work is of poor quality and their morale is at rock bottom, it’s not a pleasant prospect. Truthfully, we all want a stable and happy workplace. That means we need good people who take care of themselves.

Saying no is not something people should need to do very often in an efficiently run workplace where roles are well understood. Nevertheless, new hires, people returning from vacations, or anyone dealing with significant stresses outside of the workplace may need to decline a request occasionally. When they do, it’s important as well that we as leaders don’t hold that no against them. We want a workplace where boundaries are respected. Knowing when to say no is a skill that we should foster to protect our most valuable asset: a reliable and healthy workforce.

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