When You Should Say “No” at Work


“No” is one of the most powerful words you can use in the workplace.

It is an absolutely critical tool in setting your boundaries.

It is also contributes to the framework of management’s expectations not just of you, but also your peers.

In general, you should be willing to work, and say “Yes”. Nobody likes a co-worker that freeloads and does no work.

However the extent to which you should say “Yes” depends entirely on what you want out of your job.

Must books on success emphasize that you should say “Yes” to as much as possible. If you make yourself valuable and helpful to others, you will succeed.

But what is your definition of success?

  • Is it your goal to advance and take on more responsibility?
  • Do you want to be a leader in your organization?
  • Do you want to maximize your income?
  • Are you working towards becoming Partner or CEO?

If yes, then go ahead and say “Yes” to everything and do good work.

But it’s not everyone’s dream to become the CEO. Not everyone defines success in terms of their purchasing power, job title, or their frequent business flyer status.

Some people do not want to dedicate every daylight hour of their brief human experience to their careers. Some people define success as having enough free time to pursue their hobbies, travel, and spend time with family and friends. They don’t have the desire to become a senior manager or partner; they are happy just with a steady paycheck.

This is where your “No” comes in.

When you say “Yes” to extra work, overtime, and working on weekends and holidays, management will think: “This person is ambitious, loves to work hard, and wants to advance in their careers. Let’s keep giving her projects.”

Again, if this is your goal: well done.

But if it isn’t, you are sending management the wrong message.

Furthermore, you are raising the bar on your coworkers for what is considered “normal” working time.

Maybe you work hard for 45 or even 50 hours a week. But your coworker says “Yes” to everything and works 70 hours a week. This makes you look lazy and causes some resentment on both sides, because the guy working 70 hours probably wants to have a life too.

Just say No! Here’s how:

  • “I would really like to help you with that project but my plate is currently full”
  • “Unfortunately I can’t stay at work late this time, I have important plans that I don’t want to miss”
  • “This weekend? I’m sorry, I’m headed to Disneyland that weekend with my friends/family”
  • “I’m afraid that right now I don’t have the capacity required to ensure the quality and success of that project”
  • “[out of office message]: I will be away from X until Y without e-mail access. If you require immediate assistance place contact bobsmith@company.com”

Don’t be a dick about it – this power should not be used to continually dodge work. But if you feel you are just too busy, then say “No”.

Why do we say Yes when we don’t want to?

Once again, the answer is fear.

They are the same old fears. Fear of not getting promoted, fear of getting fired, fear of being considered a loser, etc. When you boil it down they are basically all the same fear, which is the fear of not being able to support yourself financially, dying of starvation and being homeless.

In 99% of cases these fears are greatly exaggerated. If you are already doing great work and putting in a full work week, you won’t be fired for turning down a few projects every now and again.

Moreover, if you are continually being pressured to work overtime it means that the company has a capacity issue, which will be greatly exacerbated if they get rid of you.

And if they do end up firing you, do you really care? You clearly don’t work for a place that cares for your personal well-being or your boundaries.

But be warned: management will absolutely play on these fears.

Management typically understands that most people are motivated by fear. They will use this against you, to pressure you to work harder.

They will also sell you dreams – dreams of mansions, luxury yachts, company cars, business flying and paid sabbaticals. You can have the cool, high-flying devil-may-care life of the Partner someday. If only you would work weekends.

The carrot and the stick approach most companies use are still the same as they were 2 generations ago. It is important to be aware of this.

You should work on your “No” at an rather early stage in your new job. Once your boss gets used to you continually saying “Yes” and agreeing to work 70 hours per week, it will become nearly impossible to reduce your workload at a later time without seeming lazy or mildly insubordinate.

It’s a delicate dance, but make sure you know where your boundary lies, and practice saying No!





  • Good post Kevin. Yes, saying “no” is the most important, yet underrated trait in us.

    We often refrain from saying “no” because we feel that the person in front might get offended. But that’s not true. Research says that people are less offended than we think they are.

    As Dereck Sivers says, “If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.”