You Need To Say No at Work
October 4, 2021

You Need To Say No at Work

by Brian de Haaff

We are all getting older. And that is a good thing. But as we age, our brains remove unimportant neural connections and consolidate the essential ones. By removing the synapses we no longer need, we can continue to efficiently learn new information over time. I believe a similar type of pruning is necessary for long-term success in any endeavor — including at work. We likely need to say no more often.

Saying no to big requests and even opportunities can be difficult — but it is vital to sustainable growth and achievement.

I understand why most people struggle to say no. You want to be seen as capable and diligent. And you want to do your part to support the team and help your colleagues. Many of us want to please others. If you are early in your career or have recently started a new role, you might feel additional pressure to be agreeable. Many companies also tacitly promote a culture of "yes" — where questioning or pushing back is seen as risk-averse or anti-innovation.

Now to be clear, I am not suggesting that you shirk your responsibilities or put up a fight when you are asked to do important work that might be hard or you might not be that fond of. After all, a knee-jerk reaction of "no" can be just as harmful as "yes." The point is that pausing to evaluate the value and opportunity cost of someone's ask allows you to make a wiser decision.

I see the benefits of this strategic approach each day. Our team at Aha! follows The Responsive Method (TRM), our framework for achieving sustainable success. One of the key principles of TRM is interrupt-driven — we listen carefully and respond quickly to each request we receive, tuning in to those that will help us create more value. Recently we knew we also needed to codify that we are "open to no" — as we grow, we are not afraid to turn down opportunities in order to stay true to our core values and goals.

Being authentic to who you are and what you are working towards is how you achieve sustainable excellence over time.

This is true whether you are a company leader or an individual contributor. Since you cannot agree to every project, meeting, deadline, or offer, you need a framework for determining when to say no. The following questions are meant to help you identify relative importance, so you can confidently (and respectfully) decline when needed:


Good decision-making starts with understanding the need. Lead with your curiosity to make sure you grasp exactly what the person is asking for and why. Then dig deeper into the details and logistics of when and how.

  • What is the ultimate problem you are trying to solve?

  • Can I summarize what I heard to make sure I understand what you need?

  • Can you give me an example of what you are looking for?


Goals are your guideposts — they inform every decision you make. Besides considering how saying no will impact the company, team, or individual objectives, reflect on how the ask aligns with your current priorities. Perhaps you are not the right person to fulfill the request, but a teammate is.

  • Are there other ways to solve this problem? Could we do X, Y, or Z instead?

  • Who else could we bring in to share their perspective and ideas?

  • How urgent is this request? Why?


Often there is a deeper need hidden beneath the surface of a request. Uncovering this nugget of truth requires that you empathize with the person coming to you for help. Try to imagine what they are feeling and why they chose to reach out to you by asking them the following questions:

  • Why is this meaningful to you?

  • How would completing this task help you?

  • How would completing this task impact the broader team?


If you need more context to make an informed decision, gather relevant data points from other teammates. Quantifying the business impact can help you evaluate the resources required versus the rewards you will net. For example, SaaS companies typically forecast the impact on revenue, churn, or trial numbers — but the specific metrics you track will vary based on your industry and organization.

  • What is the relative cost-benefit for this project?

  • How much time or budget would I need to invest in this effort?

  • How much organizational or leadership support does this initiative have?


"No" does not have to end the conversation. If you can, expand upon your nay by coming up with viable ideas and alternatives. This could mean that you recommend delegating the work to someone else or pushing the timeline later. Or you might advocate for why the team should not pursue the initiative at all.

  • I think person X and Y have this knowledge and are available — could they do it for you instead?

  • What would happen if we did this next month or quarter instead?

  • What would the outcome be if we did not do this at all?


Meaningful solutions are often borne out of compromise. So spend a few minutes explaining your decision and how you arrived there. Be transparent and kind as you share your thoughts and offer suggestions. Then listen to the other person and work together to identify an even better path forward.

  • Does it sound like one of my suggestions could work for you?

  • I have something that I already created in mind that might help — may I send it to you?

  • Can you keep me updated on what you decide to do next?

Saying "no" is a skill like any other — the more you practice vocalizing your truth to others, the more confident and assertive you will feel.

The framework above might seem long, but with practice, you can move through it fairly quickly and even spot patterns in people's requests. Of course, it is worth acknowledging that you might not have the option or influence to say no to your boss or teammates. In this case, ask your manager to help you identify the types of assignments where there might be some flexibility. And if you are ever unsure how a request links to a high-level goal, ask for clarification.

When you value your time and focus on what is most important, you can achieve long-term success — sometimes you just have to be willing to say no.

How do you determine when to say "no" at work?

Remote workers are happier and more productive. Find out for yourself — Aha! is hiring.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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