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The Importance of saying ‘No’

Many years ago, at the start of working life, I faced a challenge which I wondered happened only to me. As I was in a very junior role, I was often told to do various things by various people who were senior to me. I had extreme difficulty thinking how I could possibly do two or three things at a time or how I could do things that could potentially be conflicting each other. Or even worse, when two senior people asked me to do two things and each of them wanted to get their piece of work done at the same time! My manager was not available for a chat most of the time because he was always ‘busy’ or ‘had things to do.’ I was not performing to my satisfaction, staying longer hours at work; at one stage started to suffer from stress that would occupy me during week days and wouldn’t leave during the weekends. I reached the point of feeling ‘burn out’.

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But then came a miracle. Following people movement, our team had a new manager. Even before she got a chance to speak to us – her team members – she sent some of us to a session where one of the very senior leaders (Group Executive level) of the organisation was speaking. As befitted a very senior leader, he was very passionate about the values of the organisation and how those values would drive everyone to do things that would make changes to the lives to customers. One thing specifically did strike me: he was speaking about how he prioritised his tasks and one tactic he often used was saying ‘No’ to people. It was intriguing to listen to his talk. But inside my brain I heard, ‘Ah well, he is a Group Executive; it is very easy for someone of his stature to say no to anyone. But a junior employee can’t do that!’ I was frustrated thinking I would never get out of this loop. I needed to earn to survive, so I couldn’t think of resigning. But I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.

Luckily for me, I received a one on one meeting invite with my new manager. In her invite, she mentioned she wanted to check with me ‘… how you feel about your work, any challenges, and your wellbeing.’ I was shocked but in a pleasant way, because her predecessor would never care about his team members, he would avoid us even when we desperately needed his guidance. I thought I had nothing to lose and I would discuss with her honestly what was going on in relation to my work. I decided to write a few bullet points on my notebook so I did not forget what I wanted to talk about: the challenges of managing so many expectations!

In the one on one meetings she spoke in a very informal manner and seemed to have taken more interest in me as a human being, not just as a payroll number. As she made the communication easier, I started to tell her my challenge and how it was affecting my wellbeing. She started by thanking me for raising the issue boldly and honestly. She promised that we would work together to fix the problem. Then she asked me if I had thought of any actions that could help me face that challenge, e.g. if I had ever thought of saying ‘no.’ I was shocked! Could I say no to my seniors?

‘Saying no doesn’t necessarily mean refusing to do something bluntly,’ she continued, ‘have you ever mentioned to your seniors about your current workload or whether you had any capacity to do the work they wanted you to do, or what was the urgency behind their desire for you to finish a specific work, or have you mentioned to them that another senior colleague has asked you to do something?’ I admitted that I had never done that. Then she went on to say that I was not the only one who had been in this shemozzle, there were others in the same boat. Then she mentioned the reason of this was lack of proper communication between me (and the others like me) and the seniors. However, in her opinion, the root cause was that her predecessor never bothered to check how things were going inside the team. She would address it, and she encouraged me to speak up with courage and start to say what challenges I had. If I was asked to drop what I was doing and do something else, I had to ask what the urgency was behind this and to tell boldly if I had no capacity to so that. She called the whole team together on a Friday morning and set some guidelines about who would give directions about work priorities and how, how to communicate to each other, and, if required, how to say no (of course in a positive way). I started to communicate openly and boldly, and thanks to her leadership, things started to improve. I was getting the control back over my work, I was performing to my satisfaction, and despite many challenges, I started to feel happy.

Later on, as I progressed on in my career, I have honed on this skill of saying no. I started to read articles / magazines to understand the matter even better. Leaders, management educators, psychologists have elaborated on this topic. Bruce Tulgan, founder of RainmakerThinking, has mentioned that the key to career success isn’t only embracing opportunities, it’s also declining projects, tasks, and requests for help so you create time for the most value-added work. Psychologist Jessy Wrigley has mentioned something really important. In her words, the inability to say no stems simply from an eagerness to please and we struggle to say no because we’re scared of what will happen if do say no.

It is indeed a matter of working on a strategy to say no and how to say no. There are many resources available. It is good to seek professional support from someone who is a qualified person, for example, a psychologist, or if you have a mentor at work. In my case I was lucky I had an awesome manager at the early stage of my career (mentioned in this article).

Here I am sharing a summary of what I have learnt in the process of discovering how to say no.

If you are an employee:

  • Don’t feel guilty about saying no. You are not a super computer or a super creature.

  • Don’t attempt to please anyone. That way you will indeed upset everyone. Plus no one takes people pleasers seriously.

  • The only validation you need about yourself comes from you, not from others.

  • Communicate openly and boldly. Explain why you cannot do something, e.g. if you have to say yes to someone how it might negatively impact your work and your customers.

  • Seek support from someone reliable, e.g. your people leader at work. If you feel you have been asked by a very senior person to do something and you struggle to say no, explain your situation to your people leader and ask for guidance from them.

  • It is a very good idea to work with a psychologist who can give you some strategies so you can overcome your weakness and low self-esteem and learn how to say no.

  • If you have to cater to an urgent request from someone, assess if it is possible to re and de prioritise some work either at your end or at the end of the requestor.

If you are a people leader:

  • Ensure you have one on one meetings set up with your direct reports and if any of them is a people leader, cascade the culture of one on one meeting.

  • In those meetings, listen to your direct reports, let them speak, coach them on how to prioritise work, how to say no, show them that you support them.

  • Make sure you are aware that you are accessible you your direct reports need you.

  • Assess the impact of having a culture of proper communication with the team (or the lack of it, thereof). Do what is necessary to retain it (in case of a great culture) or fix it (in case the proper culture is not there).

Here I have given the links to the references that I have used:

The Subtle Art of Saying No available at

Learn When to Say No available at

The importance of learning to say “no” available at


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