We have got to get over our view that good team players always say yes.

From our earliest days at work, we are sent the strong message that good team players say “yes” when they are asked to do something. Really good team players step up and volunteer without even being asked. We’ve socialized team members to stretch themselves to the breaking point, all in service of “taking one for the team.”

In my experience as a manager, I find the compulsion to say yes is so strong that new employees will take on more and more work and stop only when they finally (and inevitably) drop the ball. The result is a difficult, embarrassing episode, which for some brief period of time causes them to avoid saying yes to a few things. But before I know it, my really keen team members are back saying yes to everything.

Alarmingly, this tendency to want to be helpful and to take on more and more work doesn’t lessen much even with time and experience. The same talented, aligned, and engaged people keep saying yes to too many things. The result is chronically poor execution, perpetual violations of work-life balance, and levels of stress and anxiety that make the whole team a powder keg waiting to blow.

It’s not just the over-eager team member who is to blame.

Team leaders must take accountability for the role they are playing in spreading team members too thinly. Lack of prioritization and unwillingness to make tough decisions about what is more — AND LESS — important leaves team members feeling no alternative but to add something else to their already full plates. Often, this is the result of team leaders who don’t have the courage to manage up. They grudgingly accept more and more work from above without challenging or asking for prioritization.

In the 3COze team effectiveness process, we teach the following framework for how to say no.

Delete: There are things that you just need to delete from your task list. These are things that don’t add value for you, or for the organization. For me, this includes lots of meetings that I’m only invited to as a courtesy. Once it’s clear that I’m not adding value—or it’s value that overlaps with someone already in the room, it’s better for me to make the tough choice to say no to that meeting. To identify opportunities to delete ask yourself: “To what extent is this still relevant?” “How are you using these outputs?” “What would be the impact be if we stopped this?”
Delay: Sometimes you need to delay action. When “issues” arise, people can catastrophize and cause crazy amounts of work in the process. It’s important to assess the core issue and to wait for the flailing to stop before jumping into knee-jerk action. I experience this when I’m traveling on business. Frequently I’ll pick up a day’s worth of messages at the same time. It’s not all that uncommon to get one message recorded in the morning that says “urgent” and asks me to do x, y, and z and then another recorded 2 hours later saying “no need to worry, we’ve handled it.” They got the job done and I didn’t add to the mêlée by trying to get involved.
Distribute: Some work is best done by someone other than you. Taking on work that you could do—but slowly and with questionable quality—just doesn’t make sense. If someone is more efficient and effective, distributing the work to them is better than doing it yourself. As a senior member of our consulting team, I’m often a go-to person for meeting with new clients. I’m often not the best person to represent the team, given the issue at hand or the industry of the client. What work do you do that would be better distributed to someone else?
Diminish: Perhaps the most valuable strategy for saying “no” is not to say it outright. The diminish strategy pares work back to its core to reduce the effort required, without losing the essential elements that are adding value. One area where I see opportunity for this technique is reporting. With many of my clients, their reporting requirements mean they spend more time reporting on the results they achieved than on actually achieving them. To diminish work, ask questions such as: “What are you trying to achieve?” What is the most important part of this?” How could we make this more manageable?”

Saying “No” is important to team effectiveness. If you do it right, you make friends. Do it wrong and you may make enemies. Here are my three tips for saying “no” without alienating people.

Tip 1

Help them question whether the work needs to be done at all. Most people have not yet become deliberate about the things they do, and don’t do. Ask some good questions to help the person assess whether or not the work is necessary.

Example: If someone came asking me to speak at an industry event that I didn’t feel was an effective use of my time, I might ask “Who is the target audience for the event?” “To what extent are the people there potential buyers of our services?” “Where would this event fit in relative priority to the other 3 we are thinking of sponsoring?”

If they come to the same conclusion as you that it can be deleted, you’re done. If not, go to #2.

Tip 2

Tell them what you are saying yes to. If you have gone through a process of determining your priorities and defining what is your primary value in the organization, share your answer with them.

Example: If I had to turn down a consulting opportunity brought by a colleague I might say “Thanks so much for thinking of me. This looks like fun work. Right now I’ve agreed with the Managing Director that my focus is on working with Executive Teams and I feel like if I take this assignment, I won’t be adding my full value for the team.”

Tip 3

Give them another way to accomplish their goal. If question #1 has made it clear that the work needs to be done and question #2 has made it clear that you won’t be the one doing it, help them figure out who will.

Example: If I had decided not to attend a sales meeting with a potential customer, I might say “What will it take to win this assignment?” “For whom on the team is this really the sweet spot?” “Who would be thrilled to get this opportunity?”

People will find it refreshing that you have an authentic conversation with them about what you will and won’t take on. It’s much better than saying “yes” to something that you will never get around to. Just remember, you need to afford the same courtesy to the people who say “no” to you.

Further Reading

Infographic – How to Say no to a Good Idea

Enough is Enough! – Tips and Tools for Saying No

Four simple steps when saying “no” doesn’t work

28 Responses to Know when and how to say ‘No’

  1. Audra August

    Thank you for highlighting such an important topic… This is often a huge source of anxiety for people – and often requires a lot of courage, especially in a “yes” culture

  2. Liane

    Thanks Audra, I know how hard it is; first for people to get their heads around saying “no,” then to figure out a way to do it that’s not offensive to their teammates. I’m glad you found the blog helpful. As always on the blog, I’d love to hear ideas you have for future posts. I try to make my advice really practical and linked to the challenges and issues that community members are having every day.

    • Nancy

      I love the 4 D’s – what a great and practical tool. I know we used to spend a lot of time in my team discussing priorities and building a better gut feel. Most of the time, my team wanted to do the ‘cadillac’ version when the request was still based on preliminary or exploratory thinking and I often had to coach them to build the “jalopy”.

  3. Tammy Heermann

    The tips here are good. What do you do when you have a boss or colleague that won’t take no for an answer? Would love to hear ideas on how to tackle that.

    • Nancy

      Tammy, I think the secret is to make your no sound like a yes by telling what you will do and describing the no’s in terms of the 4 D’s. Most times people what efficiency and quality and the 4 D’s help with that. If that doesn’t work, maybe it isn’t the right organization for you.

    • Liane Davey

      Hi Tammy, that’s a great and a very difficult question. When you have a someone who won’t take “no” for an answer, you have to switch from deleting things to simply prioritizing them. Where possible, engage the person in a conversation about which goes first. Explain the implications of adding a new task, particularly how it will affect your commitments for previous tasks. If they are insisting on both being completed with no latitude on the timelines, you might be able to switch to a conversation about resources. “How might we get A and B done in our original timeline?” I don’t envy people who face these kind of teammates and team leaders. Try as best you can to do the most important work first.

      • Jessica Sherin

        I knew one partner in a private equity firm who said that his skill in getting his partner to say “no” more often was what made them so successful. He said that he let his partner have the floor to run through all the ideas he wanted them to pursue, and then asked questions that put his partner in the position to have to prioritize. Sometimes I think the best way to start saying no is to get others to start saying it themselves!

  4. Razia Garda

    I agree that the 4-D’s are a great tool to use when speaking to your manager/boss about a task given to you that has no relevance to your job or team objective. I find people are frustrated when they don’t know how to say NO. I hope more folks try and use the 4-D’s to help them put things into perspective in their meetings.

  5. Lisa Langley

    The 4Ds are really helpful when it comes to saying no. Personally, the 2nd D, Delay, resonates for me. Hundreds of emails, instant messages, text messages and phone calls a day can sometimes be overwhelming – I’ve realized that not everything needs an immediate response and like in your example, sometimes the issue gets worked out without intervention required.

  6. Tiina

    I an aware of an organization where the culture dictates that you are not allowed to DECLINE a meeting in Outlook. WHAT ?!! This causes people to double and triple book themselves knowing full well they cannot be in multiple places at one time. The meeting organizer assumes that everyone will be at the meeting and then is frustrated when only half of the people show up and a decision cannot be made. The meeting gets rescheduled and the agony continues. Please people just say NO.

    • Liane Davey

      Tiina, that is a very scary thought! That organization is so afraid of conflict that it has guaranteed relationships can’t be authentic and based on trust. How do they even function? Time to change those teams!

  7. Ren Wiebe

    This is a very practical tool to sort through the and competing demands. I look forward to sharing this idea with some of my executive coaching clients.

  8. Jenny

    The 3 tips for saying ‘no’ are particularly useful especially for someone like myself who loves taking on new projects and thrives on managing multiple priorities. I’m reminded that I must continuously pace myself and strategically prioritize my activities (delete, delay, distribute and diminish).

  9. Bryan

    This certainly could have helped me save a lot of time earlier in my career. Like many, yes was the obvious and easiest answer to any and all requests. Who wouldn’t want to try a please their boss. WAIT! There is another way. Not obvious at first. The tips are helpful as it is about taking a step back and sometimes reframing or considering different alternatives. For me the 4Ds are useful and often require a good dose of C (courage) as well. It can take courage to say no, to slow down before diving in and consider different options and to push back when required.

  10. Toni Albert

    I could have used this when I was tagged as the “no problem!!” person in an organization. Anxiety around letting the team down by not accepting every single request left me ill and totally burnt out. The 4 D’s are a great way to gently decline without actually having to put the dreaded N-O word in there. I have used them unknowingly, and this is a great reminder to help practice that balance. Thanks!!

  11. Jim Davis

    It takes practice and a certain amount of confidence to say no. It gets easier with time if you have your own method of assessment to know what the impact on you would be to answer either way. While you don’t want to over commit, you should be doing value added activities for your organization. There was an exercise I did a long time ago on Time Mastery which helps me focus on which things to take on. Are they fun? Am a good at it? Would someone else be better suited to the task? What is the timeline and priority to the organization? I am much better at saying no as a result of my own “decision tree”.

  12. Joanne White

    All my working life no matter what the job, I have said ‘YES’, no matter what the consequences to my work-life balance have been. Recently my job has changed and become more challenging, longer hours with more responsibility. I found my self stretched and unable to complete my job in normal working hours, I was staying at work to get everything completed doing 11-12hrs a day, 5 days a week and taking work home with me at night and on weekends…..something had to give! I made the conscious decision to change it! There was a task that I was completing, it was time consuming, not really appropriate for my position to be doing and should have been the responsibility of another department.. After careful consideration of all my daily tasks, this was one that had to go. So recently for the first time I said ‘NO’, you have no idea how scared I was to say that two letter word! But I took the bull by the horns and said it, and guess what……..my fears were for nothing, my team leader listened and understood that this was a task better performed by another department.
    I really identified with this blog and I will be using the 4D’s in the future, now I have found my ‘NO’!

  13. Kim Miller

    The 4 D’s appear to be an effective set of tools to assist in moving work or projects delegated by others to the “no” box. I think it is also useful to have a list of current projects and related priorities that you can show your boss to enable the boss to assist in figuring out which project is going to be delayed or drop off the table if the new task is accepted. As always, ask “why” 5 times to get to the meat of the issue.

  14. kevin

    The 4 D’s look to be a great way to get your time management back under control. The 3 tips are worth ai try, but some boss do not like to here “no” no matter how you try to present it.

  15. Kris Veller

    It seems like we all want to say YES all the time and i am bad for it also. The ways of defecting or finding if we are needed to do as asked is a great way to delicate the right person for the job. I see people over worked in this company because they dont say no or dont know how to prioritize there time. we all need to look at if what we are asking others to go is a need or want.

  16. Matt Klassen

    I agree with the 4D’s. They definetely help with organizing your time better at home and at the office. I do find it hard to say “no” as you never want to be the person who isn’t willing to help out and pull their weight. Unfortunately there has to become a time where this is necessary not noyl for yourself but also your company.

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