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The Question:

My boss is a great guy but totally unaware of the work load I have on my plate. I am part of a couple of project teams so not all my work gets assigned by him. That said, he often asks me to take on new tasks and while I'm always game, there are times when my plate is so full I just don't know how I will do it. I'm afraid of saying 'no' and having him see me in a lesser light. But at the same time I am at my breaking point. What should I do?

The Answer:

If we took a poll, I bet saying 'no' would rank up with other least favourite things to do such as giving a speech, cleaning your office and paying taxes. You aren't alone. Many people fear saying 'no' might imply they are being unhelpful, unwilling or not a team player.

Let's see if we can create a shift for you because learning to say 'no' is an important skill – both for work and life. Sometimes saying 'no' can help manage expectations and your work load, improve your work performance and even relationships. The consequences of saying 'yes' when you are over capacity and really unable to perform at the necessary standard of work can be worse than had you initially been honest and said 'no.'

The key is to know when and how to say 'no.'

In your situation, I suggest you first conduct a solid reality check. Is your plate truly maxed out or are you just feeling overwhelmed? Is there anything you can and should do differently with respect to managing your work? Are you working as efficiently as you can? Prioritizing appropriately? Delegating where possible? Is your work load reflective of others' or above and beyond?

I encourage you to check this rigorously because your boss might wonder the same if you push back on more work. If you believe you are doing the best you can and that your work load is truly is at its max – then I would think that this would be the right time to responsibly say 'no.'

But do you?

You need to first affirm for yourself that this is an appropriate time to say 'no.' Your voice of doubt will make you feel guilty or wrong but if you access your voice of reason, what would it say? Would taking on more work jeopardize the quality of your performance, the goals of the team, your well being? What other potential implications are at hand?

Then with clarity and conviction, here are some ideas on how to say 'no':

1. Speak from a voice of responsibility: It is your responsibility to ensure others are aware of the assignments you are already committed to – especially since you get assigned work from different people. Such as, "I'd normally be able to do this but you may not realize I've been engaged on project X and Y and I wouldn't be responsible if I took this on as well as I'd be unable to invest the attention required…"

2. Engage your boss in prioritizing. Given he is unaware of what is on your plate, engage him in a conversation about prioritizing. For example: "I'm currently working on project X and Y, however, if you feel this new project is more important, are you comfortable with me prioritizing this over the others or prefer we consider other alternatives such as assigning this work to someone else?"

3. If appropriate make another feasible offer. Saying 'no' doesn't necessarily have to be a flat-out 'no.' If there's a part that you can contribute then make that part of your dialogue. "While I can't take on the whole assignment given the other work you asked me to do by end of week, I'd be happy to offer some ideas or do part of it or help you find someone else who can help. How does that sound to you?"

4. Acknowledge and show empathy. Before rushing to the 'no' part, acknowledge the request appropriately. Such as, "I recognize this is an important assignment and you need it done well. I'd like to take it on but I recognize that given other deadlines I'm dealing with, I am concerned I would not be able to…."

5. Buy time to respond versus reacting: Sometimes we say 'yes' because we are put on the spot and we react negatively to the prospect of saying 'no.' To avoid agreeing to something on the spot, try to buy a little time to gather your focus and to respond more appropriately. For example, "I would like to talk to you about this but I am on deadline with something this morning. Can I talk to you just a bit later?" Then later, "I've thought about this and…" (see the above strategies.)

You might find after some practice, saying 'no' is not as unpalatable as you first thought. It may even earn you more respect and trust as others will appreciate your responsible and honest responses.

Eileen Chadnick is a career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.

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