How to say ‘no’ to taking on more work (and when to say ‘yes’)

By Kate Neilson

While it’s important to learn how to politely decline taking on more work or attending a work social event, sometimes it’s more important to know when to say ‘yes’. 

Ask anyone how they’re feeling at this point in the year and you’ll likely get a variation of the same old answers: ‘I’m counting down the days until the holidays,’ ‘I’m crawling towards the end of the year,’ or ‘My calendar is so jam-packed with social events. I can’t keep up.’

People are tired, and understandably so. This is an exhausting time of year in ‘normal’ circumstances, but we’re also still coming down from three of the most disruptive years in recent history – particularly in a work context.

As a result, there is a movement afoot to reclaim our time. Some people are more likely to say ‘no’ to taking on extra work or attending social events, creating boundaries around how and where they spend their time. 

In a professional context, this is manifesting in phenomena like ‘Quiet Quitting’. People aren’t willing to give the same levels of discretionary effort as they gave in previous years. We’re also not showing up for each other in the same ways we used to pre-pandemic.

While saying ‘no’ is sometimes necessary to protect your wellbeing, there is a sweet spot between saying ‘yes’ to everything (to the point of burnout) and constantly saying ‘no’ and subsequently closing yourself off to potential opportunities.

This is why we sometimes need to challenge our natural instinct to say ‘no’ in certain professional contexts, says Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, CEO and founder of Making Work Absolutely Human (mwah.), a people and culture data platform and advisory firm.

“Obviously you’ve got to own your own wellbeing – you don’t want to work yourself into the ground. But you also don’t want to be known as that person who is always an automatic ‘no’.”

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When you should say ‘yes’

So how can you figure out what’s worth saying ‘yes’ to? 

Brighton-Hall suggests you consider saying ‘yes’ in the following scenarios:

You have capacity to be helpful and want to be a generous and collaborative colleague

After analysing mwah.’s client data for the year, Brighton-Hall and her team have identified an important trend: the rise of the two-speed workforce.

“There’s certainly a part of the workforce that’s going, ‘Wow, there are so many opportunities at the moment. We’ve come off a tough couple of years, let’s get back to building momentum.’ They might be tired, but they’re energised by the work they’re doing.

“The second-speed workforce is the people talking about Quiet Quitting and how they can’t go on. If you only join that conversation, that’s how people will think of you. Look after your wellbeing, absolutely, but you don’t want to be famous for always talking about how busy you are, or how you can’t possibly take anything else on.”

Showing a willingness to be collaborative in those moments will pay you back in the future, she adds. People tend to remember when you’ve gone above and beyond to help them, and are then willing to do the same for you.

“You get reciprocal generosity because you both care about each other’s goals.”

It’s also about being available and accessible to your colleagues, she adds.

“There’s something about people who are so busy or organised in ways that are disconnected from everybody. Their whole thing is, ‘I can do it really productively and fast.’ But sometimes it’s those slightly unproductive, meandering, workshopping ways of solving a problem that help you arrive at the best outcome. You might not provide the solution, but you can be part of finding it.”

You want to learn something new

You don’t need to be someone who says ‘yes’ right away, says Brighton-Hall. Take your time to assess what you could gain from the experience.

“Ask yourself, ‘Would this lead to me learning something that could make my job bigger than it is today?’ That might not necessarily mean in a hierarchical sense, but [think about] if it will make your work more interesting or impactful,” she says.

Equally important as learning something yourself is saying ‘yes’ to mentoring and teaching others, she adds.

“Rather than putting a fence around your work and saying, ‘That’s mine,’ think about how you can help to coach others. You could say, ‘No obligation, because I’ve got this, but if you want to come and join me on this work, I’d really appreciate a hand, but equally I think you might learn something.’ The impact of this can be exponential.”

You want to be exposed to energising, exciting work

We’ve all heard colleagues complain that ‘so-and-so’ gets more opportunities than they do, but, according to Brighton-Hall, this is likely because they’re more likely to position themselves as helpful contributors.

“Everyone is pretty overwhelmed as we get to the end of the year. There are days when you go, ‘I’ve got so much on. I need a hand.’ And you will always ask the person who most often says ‘yes’.

“People can get annoyed when others make assumptions about them, like, ‘Oh, I thought you’d be too busy’ or ‘I didn’t think you’d want to get involved,’ but if that bothers them then they need to start building their reputation as someone who will help out when they can.”

If you’re someone who wants to step up in your organisation, you need to be prepared to step in, says Brighton-Hall. The people with positive, fresh energy will be the ones who are tapped for potentially career-changing opportunities.

You want to shake up your job description

When people feel they’re being given too much work, or doing other people’s work, they’re often quick to reach for their job description and say, ‘This is what I’m paid to do. Nothing else.’

“This often means they have one foot out the door,” says Brighton-Hall.

This is where HR professionals and managers can step in to design more exciting and enriching work experiences. For example, they might help employees redesign work in a way that aligns with their passions (sometimes called their ‘red threads‘), or give them the opportunity to job craft.

“My favourite job ever, other than what I’m doing now, was when I was able to write my own job description. There were things I wanted to learn and that went on to become the backbone of what I do in my career now.”

“If I’ve said ‘no’, for whatever reason, I always drop a note in my diary reminding me to check in on the day to say, ‘I hope it goes well.’” – Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR

That’s the difference between staying in your lane and adopting a learner’s mindset, she says.

“It’s when you step into other people’s responsibilities that you grow. That’s a really critical part of your development. If you just ‘do your job’ inside your guardrails, that’s what you’ll do forever. You’ll stay in that box.

“Gone are the days of a job that is so bound by a description of exactly what you do. Jobs are changing so rapidly. The people who thrive and get the best opportunities are the people who are morphing and thinking differently about how they do their job and helping others to do theirs. That’s half the fun of work, in my opinion.”

How to say ‘no’ to taking on more work (and when to say ‘yes’)

How to say ‘no’ without damaging relationships

In saying all this, there are certainly circumstances where you need to say ‘no’ to invitations in a professional context. And, according to Brighton-Hall, “How you say no matters.”

She shares the following examples with some suggested phrasing:

How to say ‘no’ when going against a group consensus

The pre-requisite in this situation is working in a psychologically safe culture that allows you to speak up, she says.

“It’s really hard to swim against the tide. You’ve got to be fairly confident.”

However, if the culture is adequate, Brighton-Hall suggests it’s always best to get in early if you can, so you can build receptivity.

“You might say, ‘I know we’re going to discuss those three things tomorrow. I’ve got a really strong view on this one. I don’t think we shouldn’t add it to the list at the moment. It’s too big and to do it well, it’s better done in the new year,’ for example.”

If you need to push back on a group view in the moment, she suggests sharing your reasoning clearly and asking questions to make sure you’ve got all the context you need, or to coach in the moment.

“You might say, ‘What are the pros and cons? Would it be better to do this next year? What’s the impact on others if we don’t do it?’ So you’re not only sharing your reasoning, but how you got to it.”

How to say ‘no’ to a professional social event

Whether it’s being asked to a networking event, a coffee catch-up or to lend your professional wisdom in a coaching capacity, it’s not always possible to commit to all your social invitations, especially towards the tail end of the year.

But it’s really important that you don’t let your social exhaustion impact how you respond to invitations like this. For example, don’t turn up if your mind is elsewhere and you can’t give people your full attention, says Brighton-Hall. And don’t say you’ll be somewhere and then turn into a no-show at the last minute.

“This is a really important one to me. I wouldn’t ever want a reputation as someone who was flaky,” she says. “But there’s a fair bit of flakiness coming out since COVID. I’ve heard people say they’re running professional events, but only 25 per cent of people are showing up. That’s expensive and it’s bad. Once you say ‘yes’, you have a commitment to turn up.

“If you can’t make it, make sure you have some sincerity about it. If someone is inviting you to something, show gratitude and respect for their planning before you tell them you can’t go. If I’ve said ‘no’, for whatever reason, I always drop a note in my diary reminding me to check in on the day to say, ‘I hope it goes well.’”

How can I push back when being assigned too much work?

We all know that feeling of having another task added to our already overflowing plate. Often our managers don’t remember what we’re already working on, says Brighton-Hall, so they might need a subtle reminder.

“You might say something like, ‘That is such a great opportunity. I’ve got these two things you’ve asked me to do, and I can do them really well in the timeframe I’ve got. But I’d really love to help you with that one. Would it be possible to rearrange or reprioritise the timeline so I can fit that in?’

“This way, you start having a conversation around the timelines, capacity and bandwidth and help your boss to redesign work, rather than responding to the immediate question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You’re reverse-coaching them.”

How do you put boundaries in place while also ensuring you don’t close yourself off to opportunities? Let us know in the comment section.

*Kate Neilson is the editor of HRMOnline and HRM magazine. Previously, she has held media roles in financial services and with the NSW Government.

*This article first appeared on the website.

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