A growing to-do list, feeling under pressure, juggling multiple projects and deadlines……and then without warning, your boss asks you to take on an extra project, supervise a student, or perhaps write a review. The word “yes” passes your lips before you know what’s even happened. Sounds familiar?

Saying “no”, particularly to your boss, can be incredibly difficult and something most of us struggle with. Whether it’s trying to avoid confrontation, not wanting to seem negative, or perhaps not wanting to be considered unmotivated or lacking ambition, the reasons mount up and we pressurise ourselves into taking on more. Time management may be improved, but it is ultimately finite, and inevitably the toll is often taken on your personal life and wellbeing. There are many strategies or key phrases that can really help dealing with demands which you just can’t meet.

Diplomacy is key. Rather than outright saying “no”, try to focus on not saying “yes”. Some pointers:

  1. Buy yourself time. Rather than being put on the spot for an immediate answer, say that you need to check your diary regarding other deadlines, and will then get back to them. This helps you to take time to consider whether you are actually able to take the task on, and if you can’t, how to formulate a response.
  2. Ask your boss to help you prioritise. If what is being asked of you is not feasible, rather than refusing, ask your boss if they could help you prioritise the most important tasks. Outline what work you have to complete, what the deadlines are, and what may have to be delayed. Your boss should have a clearer understanding of your demands, and rather than simply saying “no”, you can both agree what your priorities are.
  3. Present alternative solutions. Instead of getting in to the negative terminology of how it is just not possible, provide options. For example, are there ways workload can be adjusted to accommodate requests? Perhaps delegation amongst others could make the task manageable? Or can you see some tasks that aren’t worthwhile pursuing in light of new demands? This is more likely to elicit a positive response, and for you to demonstrate that it is just as important to you that the request is achieved.
  4. Try to stay rational. If what is being asked of you has caused you stress or upset, allow yourself some time to calm down and gather your thoughts. Consider your options, what reasons you have to want to adjust your workload, and how your boss may respond.
  5. Remind your boss of past positive performance, or agree on future commitments. If it’s just not possible to say “no” (perhaps it’s a last minute grant deadline or important amendments to a paper) tell your boss “yes”, you will be happy to help, but that as you’ve done this in the past, perhaps next time ‘x’ could assist or make it clear that your time had been allocated to doing ‘y’ in case other work suffers.

Whichever strategy you might try, it is ultimately better to tackle the issue, than fail in completing the work being asked of you and cause yourself stress.

See Incite issue 18 for more information on improving workplace relationships.