The Power of ‘No’
Have you ever said yes to a request at work when you knew deep down you had no intention of doing it? Maybe you said you’d meet a colleague for coffee, take someone to lunch, or participate on a committee, but you really didn’t have the time or desire to follow through. That’s okay. We’ve all said yes to things we knew weren’t really going to happen. In fact, this happens a lot, all over the world, in both personal and professional life. Why do we do this, and how can we shift our responses so they reflect our true intention and capacity?
The behavior of saying yes to things we know we either don’t want to or are unable to do is called “hedging.” It consists of using phrases like “I don’t know,” “maybe,” and “we’ll see,” when really your answer is, unequivocally, no.
When we hedge, our intentions (most times) are good. At work, we hedge to avoid disappointing others — like our customers, our managers, and our coworkers. It’s easy to feel that if you say no to a request at work you’ll be perceived as selfish or rude, or that it might impact your performance review. It’s natural to want to be liked and accepted, and to be considered a team player. That said, hedging can have many negative impacts.
For instance, when we commit to too many projects, assignments, and “five-minute favors” and we know we will be unable to complete them, we wind up creating false expectations, and can become the bottleneck in the system — which is the exact opposite of what most people intend when they say yes. Hedging also tends to create more work (that may or may not be part of your role), causing stress, resentment, and frustration. At the team level, hedging erodes trust, damages reputations, and can cause widespread role confusion.
Break the Hedging Cycle
Start by paying attention to when you hedge and get clear on what you really can, and cannot, do. “No” doesn’t have to be dismissive. A strategic no can, in fact, be a powerful productivity tool and a way to set clear priorities. It can mark the beginning of a thoughtful, intentional conversation about workload, role definition, and office dynamics. When you give a mindful no, you contribute even more to your team by being clear about what is realistic, which allows the organization to better understand needs, plan for resources, and set priorities. This is especially important for companies operating with limited resources.
It’s not all about just saying no — the way you say no is also important. Use a respectful tone and provide as much context as possible to the person making the request. Explaining why you’re unable to oblige a coworker’s request can go a long way — not just in increasing efficiency, but also in building trust. A phrase to experiment with is “that’s not going to work for me, because….”
If you know you can get to the request, but just not right now, set expectations up front on timeframe. “That’s not going to work for me right now, can we talk again in three weeks?” Another option is to offer help in whatever way you can: “I know this is important to you, but right now the core priorities for my job are x, y, and z, and I’m not able to support this request. Can I help you find someone else who might be able to help?”
Most times, when people feel respected, they are willing to work together to find a solution that is realistic and supports the team and organization — even if the conversation begins with “no.”