Set Boundaries at Work with the Awesome Power of "No"

Saying "no" is actually makes you more successful at work. These essential strategies will help you set workplace boundaries with grace.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #582
The Quick And Dirty

Instead of saying "no" directly, you can work with graceful responses that lie somewhere between "yes" and "no."

  • Know that your time is an asset, and let others know when it would be better spent elsewhere.
  • Acknowledge when something isn't in your wheelhouse and help your coworker find help from someone better suited for the task.
  • Resist taking on a cumbersome project by getting a better understanding of why it's necessary and suggesting alternative action plans.
  • Contribute a smaller percentage of your time to a project instead of tackling 100 percent of it.

When my first daughter was born, I considered naming her Nola. But as my sage (and handsome!) husband pointed out, her nickname was going to end up being No. And that seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. No one likes the sound of a “no.”

We all know by now that setting clear boundaries at work—in other words, saying no—is key to our wellness and self-preservation. But still, it’s hard to resist the urge to be a hero. You want to be the one your boss can count on, and that means saying yes to everything.

But what if I told you that saying yes to everything was the lazy person's path and that a regular and strategic “no” is the way to maximize the value you deliver? Would you buy it?

Define your boundaries at work with clarity of purpose

Truth is, your company invested in you. It decided at some point that something important needed to be done. So, it set aside a salary, produced a job description, found, met, and onboarded you. That’s a lot of dollars invested.

Having clarity of purpose and the discipline to stay on track is the hardest work of all.

Your job, in turn, is to maximize their return on that investment. And the way to do this is to stick to your purpose—to focus on what you were uniquely hired to do. Having clarity of purpose and the discipline to stay on track is the hardest work of all.

Now, I live in the real world. Sometimes there’s an emergency—something’s on fire, and you need to jump in to help put it out. Or sometimes, we need to earn a few points with someone who has asked a favor. Or maybe, what’s being asked of us is something we can deliver in literally minutes. Or the request is a challenge we’ve been dying to get our hands on. In these scenarios, use your judgment. Sometimes letting a "yes" take us off-purpose is the right thing to do. But this should be the exception and not the rule.

Today I’m talking about the moments in which we know that saying yes takes us away from the work that should be commanding our focus and attention. And yet saying “no” feels straight-up icky.

How to say "no" without being a jerk

So, how do we manage the “no” without being the workplace jerk? The answer is … with grace. There is a whole spectrum of responses that lie between "yes" and "no." So let’s dive into the subtlety—otherwise known as the art of saying "no" without using the word.

Let’s walk through a few scenarios we’ve likely all encountered. We'll identify a response that both respects your boundaries and keeps you in the zone of heroics.

Scenario 1: It’s not your responsibility

Someone’s asked you to do something that simply isn’t yours to do. Now, you may be flattered that they see you as capable, but you know your time would be better invested elsewhere.

Instead of saying either “Yes, I’d love to” or “Nope, that ain’t my job” try something like this:

“It sounds important and I’d love to be able to take that on. But my focus is on driving X, and our customers are really relying on X right now.”

Your “no” is your way of doing the right thing for the company.

In this approach, you’ve communicated something much more sophisticated than a "nope." You’ve demonstrated that your attention and focus are rightfully invested in something very different and that a "yes" to this request has consequences that may impact the customer. In other words, your “no” is your way of doing the right thing for the company.

Scenario 2: This sounds really difficult

Someone is asking you to take on a project that frankly isn’t in your wheelhouse. Maybe you’re a Google Slides whiz, yet it’s an exercise in Sheets that’s being asked of you.

Instead of having to out your feelings of incompetence or insecurity with a “no,” what if you said something like “I’m guessing you’d like this done quickly. If I’m honest, I’m not the most efficient when it comes to spreadsheets. You know, Michael can do in minutes what takes me hours. Why don’t we go ask him if he can help out?”

By taking this approach you’ve accomplished three important things.

  1. You’ve acknowledged the urgency
  2. You’ve identified someone specific your coworker might turn to instead without obligating him
  3. You’ve offered to make the connection, which leaves the requester feeling considered and cared for, not rejected.

Well done.

Scenario 3: That sounds like a lot of work

You’re being asked to take on something cumbersome. Maybe your boss wants you to develop and maintain an elaborate weekly dashboard to track the results of a sales or marketing campaign. And it would take you days to create exactly what she’s asked for.

Your response starts with recognizing that your time is a company asset. Let her know exactly how much of your time and attention this task would require, and what might not get done as a consequence. Then, ask her if she’d be open to exploring more efficient ways of getting to the same or a similar result. Pose some questions to understand exactly what she needs. Is every data point she’s requesting essential? Is weekly a necessary cadence? Is she feeling uninformed or concerned?

Your response starts with recognizing that your time is a company asset.

By better understanding what your boss needs to achieve, you might be able to recommend a much simpler solution to the problem. Perhaps a weekly email, not a dashboard, might do the trick. Or maybe she really only needs four data points, not 12. Or perhaps reporting bi-weekly is sufficient.

By asking probing questions, you may be able to both protect the investment of your time and energy while also delivering real value.

Scenario 4: You don’t have the capacity required

Sometimes you're asked to do something you can’t manage end-to-end. There may be a way to add value without taking the weight of the entire project on your shoulders.

Let’s say someone from Corporate Communications wants to post an article on the company intranet about a project you delivered. Your communications colleague has asked you to write the piece. Writing isn’t your greatest gift, and your time is tight at the moment.

There may be a way to add value without taking the weight of an entire project on your shoulders.

Instead of saying no, try asking your Communications colleague what they’d be able to contribute to the effort. Maybe collaboration is in order. You might produce an outline that your colleague could turn into an article. Or maybe she could interview you and write the piece, which you’d be happy to fact check. Find out how much your colleague is willing to invest. Sometimes saying "yes" to 50 percent is better than a "yes" or a "no" to 100 percent.

Now we’ve covered a handful of strategies designed to protect both your boundaries and your reputation at work. Which leaves us with another burning and critical question: What will you do with all that excess time and energy?

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.