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How The Most Successful People Turn Down Extra Work

Saying no to your supervisor isn’t easy, but nailing that habit can set you up for success over the long haul.

How The Most Successful People Turn Down Extra Work
[Photo: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images]

When you’re dating, one of the most uncomfortable conversations is when you have to break it off. Inevitably, there’s a period of awkwardness where you’re fumbling for the right words: “It’s not you, it’s me,” “It’s not the right time,” “I’m just not in the best place right now.” There’s nothing easy about it.

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Professional conversations can be similar. Saying no to a coworker or manager can be nerve-wracking: cue the anxious sweats. All of us want to be team players in the office–the person who can be relied upon in a pinch, who’s a proven doer and, can execute flawlessly. But there are times when you need to say no to extra work (in the nicest, least rude way possible), a difficult skill that the most successful people have mastered. Here’s how.

Why Saying “No” Is So Hard

“The moment someone asks you to do something you don’t have the time or inclination to do is fraught with vulnerability,” Brene Brown, who researches the psychology of vulnerability, shame, courage, and worthiness at the University of Houston, recently wrote for Oprah.com. “‘Yes!’ often seems like the easiest way out.

“But it comes at a price: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said ‘Sure!’ in my squeaky, I-can’t-believe-I’m-doing-this voice, only to spend hours, even months, feeling angry and resentful,” she continues. “For women, there’s a myth that we’re supposed to do it all (and do it perfectly). Saying no cues a chorus of inner shame gremlins: ‘Who do you think you are?’ ‘You’re not a very caring [mother/wife/friend/colleague].’”

This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. Daring to set boundaries, says Brown, is proof of having true courage to put your well-being first even when you risk disappointing others. And, yes, this includes your boss.

These are a few potential reasons why you might need to turn down extra work:

  • Your plate is full.
  • You’re tired of being the office pushover.
  • You’d like to set better boundaries at work.
  • The extra assignment would affect your work-life balance.
  • It will negatively impact your primary work responsibilities.

Now that you know you can turn down extra work, here’s how to do it gracefully—and in a way that won’t cost you when it comes to performance review time.

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Use “I” Statements, Not “You” Or “We”

If you’ve decided to decline extra work, be sure about both your motives and your level of confidence. This is a decision you are making, which means you should use the word “I”. The decision is about you and what is important to you, and not about the person asking.

Avoid sweeping statements like, “You always ask me at the last minute,” or “We feel like this is unfair.” In this situation, you aren’t speaking for other members of the team, and you should only refer to this specific instance, as opposed to past instances and grievances.

Once you convey something along the lines of, “I’m glad you came to me with this opportunity, but unfortunately I won’t be able to tackle it at this time,” you may choose to have a separate conversation with the person about their track record of last-minute assignments or unbalanced workloads.

Be Honest, Clear, And Swift

While politely declining a request from your boss can be fraught with tension, making up an excuse or a fake set of circumstances to get you out of the work makes you look bad. And it can come back to bite you.

Instead, be honest about your reasoning, and resist the urge to waver. Before speaking to your colleague or sharing your decision with your manager, ask yourself why you are saying no. Really think through your reasoning and craft a clear and concise way to convey that. Waffling will only ante up the pressure and send mixed messages. Don’t stall, avoid the person, or just assume they will “take the hint.” Be decisive— it’s your career and you’re in charge of it.

Follow The Golden Rule

Treat others how you want to be treated. A rejection or an unapologetic “no” can be incredibly harsh–including to your boss. Be mindful of how the opposite party might feel, and understand that he or she may not fully agree with your decision to decline taking on additional work.

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That’s where providing an explanation and showing thoughtfulness–both about the project and the manager who’s asking you to work on it–can go a very long way in determining their response. Remember to remain confident in your decision yet empathetic to your boss’s needs, especially if they remain professional toward you.


A version of this article originally appeared on Glassdoor. It is adapted and reprinted with permission.