How To Tell A Co-Worker "No"

Big Red No

One of the biggest challenges at work is saying “No”.

Usually it’s to your boss. You want to impress them. You want to show that you’re willing to work. That you’re not afraid of the little things. That you want to grow within the company.

But another area that often pops up and causes stress is with coworkers.

The same feelings of guilt and obligation creep in when a coworker asks you for your help on something. A project. A paper.

It could even be something as seemingly harmless as stopping in for a chat in your office.

But it’s not healthy. And it’s not good for your career.

Warren Buffett is famous for a few things, but this quote is often cited (although rarely followed):

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

But it’s incredibly true…

You have to be able to tell your coworkers no.

Here are a few steps for doing it…

#1. Know Your Priorities

What do you want to accomplish in your career? In your current job? For your current company?

And then also with your personal time. Time with family. Time for hobbies. Time for side hustles.

Take the time to consider what you want. Think about what matters to you. What you’re good at.

The key is that you can’t do a lot of things…depending on where you are in life. Rod Stewart, of all people, has a great motto on this. He learned from his father that every person can and should have a job, hobby and sport.

But only one of each.

Talk to your boss to learn what they expect from you. What their top priorities are for you. Then consider what you feel are your priorities.

When your boss or coworkers come to you with anything outside of those priorities, tell them you’re not available.

#2. Practice & Fine Tune Your “No”

But it’s obviously not always that easy. You have to practice and fine tune how you refuse your coworkers and especially your boss.

Let’s say your boss keeps coming to you with requests. Tell them no by explaining that you only have so much time and that they’ve already given you a max number of things to do. If the new item is really that important, ask them what previous priority you should replace.

If a coworker, maybe even one you really like, keeps coming to your office to chat everyday, tell them that you’re working on a project that is important to your boss, to the company and also to you and that you can’t spare the time.

Maybe offer them a time that works out better.

Most people understand when you lay out the priorities for them.

#3. Say Yes To The Right Things

The other side of these discussions is that when the right things come along you want to recognize them and say YES.

Say a coworker comes to you and asks you to help them on a company project. One that fits with your career goals and even the priorities your boss has laid out for you.

Jump up and say YES. Make it happen. Even if you have to stop doing lesser priorities.

The key to saying no is really about understanding your priorities, saying no to the wrong things and then saying yes and not feeling bad about it to the right things.

Final Thoughts

Humans seem to be wired to say yes to things. Our ancestors must have been wired to say yes to every opportunity because they had little opportunity. Food was difficult to get at times so when you saw it, you said YES. There weren’t a lot of people in the world so when someone new came along with an opportunity, you said YES.

But today it’s different. We have to be more protective of our yeses. We have to be willing to say no. Even to our coworkers.

It starts with understanding yourself and what your boss wants from you. From there, you can feel better about refusing a request that isn’t right from anyone in the office.

Dayne Shuda
Dayne Shuda
Dad, husband, golfer, and bow hunter. Owner of Ghost Blog Writers.