Tim Sieck knew it was a stretch worth considering.
While working for a management consulting group several years ago, he was offered a project with a large automotive company. The assignment would help him develop a new area of expertise. It was something he’d never done before, and it sounded like fun.
Yet as Sieck learned more, "I knew that the project was going to fail," he says. He turned it down. "That was probably the most difficult conversation I ever had with my boss," he adds.
Sieck is now principal partner with the organizational development and HR consulting firm On Target Talent, and he often encourages managers to develop employee talent through stretch assignments. He says projects that are beyond an employee’s current work or skill set that "stretch" them and build new expertise can be "the absolute best thing."
But even Sieck has to admit that there are times it’s important to turn down a stretch. Here, he and other experts offer their advice on when to say no—and how to do it.
You know you’re going to fail. "You have to be able to say, ‘I don't think I can do this,’" Sieck says. That’s what kept him from accepting the stretch assignment several years ago: He just didn’t see any chance of success.
Seth Kaufman, a psychologist and certified career coach who owns Creative Vision Coaching, says it’s important not to underestimate yourself, though. Don’t let nerves stop you from reaching toward a stretch assignment, he says, but be realistic about what you can do.
There’s a pattern of these "stretches." If a boss is consistently piling more work on your desk and calling it "stretching," Kaufman says it’s worth pressing pause. "You do need to set some kind of limit," he says, "and indicate that you’re not a pushover." He says it’s too easy to get cast as the one who people can lob extra work onto—especially if you set that precedent early on.
It doesn’t feed a passion or fit into your career goals. At their best, stretch assignments can help you develop new skills that complement your broader career goals. Other times, they may be better for a boss or your company than they are for you. If a stretch assignment isn’t going to push you out of your comfort zone and spark some passion, it’s probably worth passing, Sieck says. "People fail more often because they can’t find the interest or passion than from a skill or talent issue," he adds.
It’s unethical or illegal. Sieck says this is more common than you may realize. "You read case after case of people who were told by their supervisor: Go out and develop a model, but don’t test it with the rigor necessary. That may be a stretch assignment, but if it’s not above board, then you’re going to damage your career in the long run."
You’re already at your limit. "If you’re already overworked, that may be another reason to say no," Kaufman says—especially if it will push your work-life balance from tenuous to terrible.
If you’re job searching? Surprise! Sieck says this may actually be the perfect time to accept a stretch assignment. He says it’s better to look for a new job when you’ve just finished a big project or are working on one that makes you feel successful. "That kind of confidence just oozes from you," he says.
Think about the outcome you want. Holly Weeks, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the author of Failure to Communicate: How Conversations Go Wrong and What You Can Do to Right Them, says to be realistic here. A preferred outcome of "That’s great!" is never going to happen unless the person misunderstood your no. A more sensible goal might be having your boss say, "That makes sense" when you turn down the assignment.
With your outcome pinned down, Weeks says to think about how to get there before having the conversation. You may decide to open with something like: "I’m going to pass on this, good as it sounds, and let me tell you why." As the conversation continues, keep that preferred outcome in mind and make sure you’re moving toward it.
Don’t hide the real reasons under flimsy ones. When people say no to something, they often give the "lightweight" reasons like "I have too many meetings already" first, Weeks says. Instead, the deeper reasons like "this doesn't align with my goals" should come first, since the flimsier ones are easy for someone to just bat away.
Find someone else. Kafuman suggests scouting the office for a coworker who may be gung-ho about this particular work. Then you can suggest that person when you tell your boss no—with the alternate’s approval first, of course.
Don’t rule out compromise. In the process of explaining why you’re turning down the assignment, Weeks says you may encourage your boss to see things differently or even adapt the work to better suit your needs. She says that’s why it’s important to make your "no" a conversation rather than a statement. You might even consider explaining what you could agree to rather than what you can’t. "There are possibilities that we may not even have considered," Weeks says. "What we’re doing now is talking about how to make this work."
Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer who often covers topics in business, culture, and higher ed. Follow her on Twitter @writermolly.