How to say no – without sounding negative

23rd Jun 2021

As a new starter, it can be difficult to turn down colleagues’ requests – especially when you’re trying to come across as a team player

How to say no – without sounding negative

Starting a new job can be a stressful experience – a mix of excitement, pressure, new tools and process, and of course remembering everyone’s names.

What can make it even more unnecessarily stressful, though, is not saying no when you should.

While your workload should have been agreed in your contract, there are times when you’ll need to pitch in and help out a colleague, or be allocated more work by your line manager.

But if you keep saying yes to everyone, you’re setting yourself up for stress, and potential burnout.

“A new employee is always keen to impress and will have a default setting of ‘yes’ to most requests,” says John Watkins, director of employability at The University of Law.

“In a busy working world there always tends to be more to do than time available to do it – thus employees are faced with the challenge of taking on ever more commitments or finding a way to say no.”

But don’t worry, says John: this usually recedes over time as both employer and employee realise that the limit has been reached. But until we reach that point, how can we balance our workload with our desire to impress?

Understand what’s at risk

Ultimately, if you continue to accept more and more work, you’re putting yourself at risk of burnout. Anne-Laure LeCunff, a former marketing lead at Google, understands this all too well.

“The months-long [interview] process had already kept my stress levels high,” Anne-Laure recalls. “And when I was offered my dream job, [I felt] I could now finally relax.

But, when I started the job, I started doubting myself.” She was experiencing the classic symptoms of Imposter Syndrome, which made her feel like she had to cover more ground in order to compensate for any shortcomings.

“As a result, I decided to work really hard. I would say yes to everything. Someone needed a hand with a project? Of course, I was happy to help. A last-minute presentation to finish? I would cancel my dinner plans… I would take calls in the middle of the night to make sure everything would run smoothly,” Anne-Laure writes.

By not establishing boundaries, Ann-Laure burnt out, and had to leave her job behind in order to recover her mental health.

Remember: everyone has been in your shoes

You are not the first trainee in the world! All of your colleagues will have one point walked in your shoes, and have learned how their boundaries and workload limits.

“The first time you say no (or words to that effect) is unsettling but I was fortunate enough to have a manager who respected my honesty, and I was never concerned that it would be held against me,” says John, but acknowledges saying ‘no’ doesn’t always seem easy.

“The perception is that such a rebuff can be perceived negatively – and those asking are often more senior, intimidating and actually instructing rather than requesting!”

Ask your supervisor for advice before saying ‘no’

Remember, your supervisor or manager is there to help you – they want to see you succeed.

They hired you because of your skills and experience, and they want to work with you at the firm. Keep that in mind.

You aren’t being a bother by asking for their help or even just their advice – they are there to support you and help you thrive.

Chances are they’ll agree you’ve got too much on, or that someone is making an unreasonable request, and will back your corner by helping you to turn it down.

They can help you prioritise your workload; a helpful way of approaching this is to look at what is most time-sensitive and what it time-intensive.

Try focusing on the more urgent projects first so you can hit the deadline, and when there are fewer projects on your to-do list, you can make a start on the more time-intensive projects.

Your manager can help you see which items on your to-do list can be classed as lower priority.

Some parting tips…

“In my role as Director of Employability at The University of Law, I prepare students for the reality that in a professional environment there will always be times when you have too much to do and/or are not able to say no,” says John.

Here are his top tips for keeping your workload manageable as a new starter:

  • Wherever possible, try to avoid using the word ‘no’ but use language such as ‘yes, if I can move another commitment….’ as this shows willing but also recognises current priorities
  • It is better to disappoint at the outset than over-promise and under-deliver when the deadline arrives; if you can see no way of being able to do it, say so in a calm, professional manner
  • Build relationships with those in your team to be ready to ask for help or indeed offer it
  • Clarify deadlines on all work that you are given; ‘as soon as possible’ is too vague and you cannot prioritise effectively without real clarity
  • Communicate proactively to avoid being asked in the first place as your boss knows you have no time; ‘just to let you know that I will be spending the next 2 days working on project X to meet Friday’s deadline for important client Y’
  • Use time management tools such as urgent/important to plan your time and be able to show your boss exactly what you already have to do if asked to do something else