How to say ‘no’ at work – professionally

Declining a request or additional workload should not be a death sentence for your relationship with your manager. We break down the art of saying no at work.

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An extra work task when you’re already up against it. Taking on a new project in a packed quarter that’s full of initiatives. Being asked to plan a meeting you’d rather not even attend. The pressure to constantly say ‘yes’ and take on more can feel never-ending in the modern workplace.

But, what if the key to unlocking productivity and wellbeing is being able to confidently say ‘no’?

To understand why saying ‘no’ is a powerful skill to have, we’ll walk you through how and why you should pause before you say ‘yes’ to an additional workload. We provide real tips on delivering a firm but respectful ‘decline’.

Why is saying ‘no’ important at work?

It might feel uncomfortable or unnerving to go contrary to orders you’re given at work, but it’s important to learn how to establish boundaries. Here are some of the most important reasons why:

  • Increased efficiency: saying ‘no’ allows you to focus on the tasks that matter, prioritising your day strategically, and maximising your energy and concentration. This leads to a higher quality of work and improved productivity.
  • Work-life balance: constant overcommitment has a ripple effect, impacting your work hours and your personal well-being. Saying ‘no’ can be a self-care strategy, protecting your time and mental energy for rest, personal passions, and relationships. This fosters resilience and prevents burnout.
  • Focus on growth: saying ‘no’ isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s about making conscious choices that align with your values, goals, and skillset. This allows you to learn and grow by focusing on opportunities that truly challenge and develop you, paving the way for a sustainable career.

When is the right time to say ‘no’?

If you’re still looking for clear signs of when it’s called for to say a strong ‘no’, these are some of situations where you can feel justified doing so:

  • Capacity crunch: recognise your limits. When your plate is already brimming, taking on more is a recipe for burnout. Don’t be afraid to politely decline – your colleagues (and your future self) will thank you later.
  • Chasing deadlines: unrealistic deadlines or excessive workloads are red flags. Don’t be afraid to negotiate for a manageable timeframe or suggest alternative solutions.
  • Balancing between work and personal commitments: if you’re stretching too thin across your professional and personal life, this is a sign you’re not maintaining a healthy balance. Saying ‘no’ to extra work outside regular hours protects your personal time and allows you to recharge.
  • Alignment check: does the project or task fit your skillset, specialisms, and priority focuses? Saying ‘no’ to tasks outside your expertise allows you to focus on excelling where you’ll truly shine, or where the business needs you most.

How do you decline professionally?

Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be awkward or damaging to your professional relationships. By mastering the art of professional rejection, you can protect your time and commitments while maintaining a positive and collaborative work environment.

  • Choose the right time and setting: opt for a face-to-face conversation in a quiet space when possible. Email is acceptable for less sensitive requests, but the personal touch can go a long way. If you do it during a meeting, make sure to uphold the right etiquette.
  • Start with empathy: acknowledge the request and the person’s needs. Phrases like “I understand this is important…” or “Thank you for thinking of me…” can help soften the blow.
  • Think of alternatives: whenever possible, offer options or compromises. Suggest a different timeline or delegate the task to someone else with relevant skills.
  • Stay collaborative: focus on what’s possible instead of dwelling on the negative. Phrases like “I’m currently fully booked, but…” or “Perhaps we can revisit this project later…” keep the door open for future collaboration.

Real-world examples

Mastering the art of ‘no’ doesn’t just benefit your workload, it empowers you to navigate tricky situations gracefully. Remember, clarity is key and you should have a helpful attitude. Try to find alternative solutions where possible.

Let’s explore some real-life scenarios where a well-placed ‘no’ can work wonders:

Scenario 1: priority pile-up

You’re excited about a new project, but it clashes with an existing commitment. Here’s what you can say: “Thank you for offering me this opportunity! However, due to my current workload on [x], I wouldn’t be able to give this project the attention it deserves. Perhaps we can revisit this later, or I could suggest someone else on the team who might be available.”

Scenario 2: peak season

Your manager asks you to take on extra responsibilities during peak season. This is what you can say: “I appreciate the trust you have in me, but my plate is currently full with [x]. Would it be possible to reprioritise tasks, or delegate some to ensure I can deliver high-quality work on everything?”

Scenario 3: optional outing overload

You’re invited to a non-mandatory work event you don’t want to attend. You can say: “Thanks for the invite, but I have prior commitments that evening. I value team bonding, though, and would love to join you for the next one!”

Scenario 4: setting boundaries without burning bridges

A colleague asks you for help outside your expertise. Here’s what you can say: “I’m happy to help where I can, but this falls outside my usual scope. Perhaps I could recommend someone on the team who specialises in this area, or connect you with relevant resources.”

The dos and don'ts of saying 'no' in the workplace


  • Be assertive, not aggressive: clearly and confidently express your reasons, using phrases like “I appreciate the offer, but…” or “Due to my current workload…” rather than “I can’t” or “No way”.
  • Acknowledge and empathise: show understanding for the request and the person making it. Say things like “I know this project is important…” or “I appreciate that you thought of me…” to soften the blow.
  • Offer alternatives: whenever possible, explore options. You can suggest a different timeline, delegate to others, or propose collaborative solutions. This demonstrates a willingness to help within your capacity.
  • Focus on solutions, not excuses: avoid lengthy justifications or apologies. Briefly explain your situation and focus on suggesting ways forward.
  • Maintain positivity: keep the tone upbeat and collaborative. Phrases like “Perhaps we can revisit this later…” or “I’m open to collaborating in other ways…” express openness and maintain good relationships.


  • Make false promises or commit halfheartedly: saying ‘yes’ just to please someone sets you up for failure and breeds resentment. Be honest about your limitations.
  • Gossip or badmouth the request: keep it professional. Don’t complain about the workload or blame others. Focus on your own capacity and limitations.
  • Burn bridges: remember, saying ‘no’ today doesn’t have to mean ‘no’ forever. Leave the door open for future collaboration and maintain positive relationships.

Saying ‘no’ effectively in different contexts

Saying ‘no’ isn’t limited to face-to-face interactions. Here’s your guide to saying ‘no’ effectively across different channels:

  • Email etiquette: make sure to acknowledge the request and express your attitude. Use concise language and suggest a later date, recommend someone else, or propose alternative solutions. End with a positive note, reiterating your willingness to help in other ways.
  • In-person or virtual meetings: adjust your tone and demeanour to match the other person’s approach. Focus on your limitations and workload, avoiding accusatory language. Discuss options to help them achieve their goal without burdening you.
  • Urgent requests: for these, offer immediate alternatives or suggest escalating to someone else. For delicate situations, express sympathy and offer a detailed explanation if necessary.


Mastering the art of saying ‘no’ is a crucial skill for personal and professional growth. A positive business environment should (ironically) welcome the word ‘no’ now and then.

By understanding why it’s valuable to say ‘no’, recognising situations where it’s necessary, and implementing professional ways of declining tasks, individuals can navigate their work environments with confidence. It can help them set boundaries effectively while contributing to a healthier, sustainable career.

Ultimately, a healthy organisational culture should be one where employees are empowered to manage their own time and commitments. Encouraging team members to push back on requests they can’t prioritise is in everyone’s best interest in the long run.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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