4 Easy Steps To Say “No” at Work and Set Boundaries

Being the DIY-do-it-all-chronic-overachievers that we are, we want to crush any commitment we make, especially at work. But if your current commitments (including the one you’ve made to yourself) will suffer from taking on more commitments, then instead of crushing anything, you’re gonna get crushed.

I get it: As you move up in your career, you don’t always have a say in what comes your way. But you do have a say in how you manage your own bandwidth and other people’s expectations (even your boss’s!). Too much stress and not enough time isn’t a good combination for anyone.

The right move when you are asked to take on something new and are already overwhelmed is to tell the person simply and clearly that you can’t commit to it at this time. This sounds obvious, but we are often so concerned about being nice and not hurting people’s feelings that we tie ourselves into knots trying to find a way to say anything but “no” to avoid disappointing them. But most people at work, especially your superiors, will appreciate your honesty about your resources—it’s way less “disappointing” than having you overcommit and do a shitty job.

The next time you’re faced with another commitment that you know you just can’t take on, try these tactics:

1. Be gracious for the opportunity

Your boss: “Nicole, I’m looking for someone to update the handbook we give to incoming interns to reflect our latest projects and thought you might want to take this on. Can you do it?”

You: “Thanks so much for thinking of me—this sounds like a valuable project for our team! However, I am already committed to Projects A and B and want to keep my focus there so that I can knock those projects out of the park before our deadline.”

2. Offer a partial solution to meet your boss’s needs

You: “I do have a handy outline that I created regarding our new social media approach, which I will send to you by the end of the day to include in the handbook.”

Your boss: “That’s great; I had no idea you created that. However, I still need you to update the handbook. Can you have it back to me, incorporating your social media outline, by Friday?”

3. Negotiate an achievable deadline

You: “I understand, and I want to make sure I have enough time to complete the handbook in a thorough manner on top of my other projects. Is a Monday deadline acceptable?”

Your boss: “Yes, that works.”

4. Keep the door open for future opportunities

You: “Thanks again for offering this project to me, and please do keep me in mind for future projects.”

Why this works: Notice the “thank-you sandwich” we created here, starting with appreciation for the opportunity and expressing interest in being kept in the loop about future projects. Not only is this a gracious approach to negotiating with someone who holds a higher position than you do, but it also goes a long way to ensure you won’t be passed over for a future opportunity that you might actually want.

By presenting actual examples of what else you have cooking, like Projects A and B you aren’t coming off as defensive, but demonstrating the many other ways you are contributing to the good of the team. When possible, refer the asker to a helpful resource or provide additional information to help move their project along—and solidify your status as a total team player. And offer an actual deadline for your contribution, which makes it more genuine. Of course, your boss has the right to refuse your amended deadline, but you won’t get the extension unless you ask.

Set boundaries to stop stress

If you don’t set boundaries around your domain, which includes your time, your energy, and even your feelings, people can and will take advantage of you. As many of the greatest female leaders out there will tell you, sometimes breaking that glass ceiling requires putting up some scaffolding first.

Sometimes breaking that glass ceiling requires putting up some scaffolding first. Share on X

A version of this article was originally published on Entrepreneur.


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