how to say no to a work request

If you have a full plate at work but can’t think of the last time you pushed back on a work request, no matter how far afield from your own priorities, you might be taking on so many commitments that you can’t possibly get it all done without exhausting yourself. What’s more, in your efforts to do everything, you’re likely to end up letting some things slip because you’re simply too overloaded to remember it all, let alone tackle everything.

Sometimes it really is reasonable to say no at work – or at least to push back in another way. In fact, a good manager will be relying on you to speak up when you have too much on your plate or when your workload threatens to jeopardize your work quality or accurate.

Here are five ways to professionally and reasonably push back on work requests.

1. Get clear in your own head about what’s most important for you to achieve, and how much time it will take you to achieve it – and spend some time getting aligned with your manager about that. For instance, you might sit down with your manager at the start of the quarter or the year and say, “My big priorities over this period are going to be X, Y, and Z. I think that will take up 80% of my time, leaving a few hours each week to keep A and B running in the background and a few hours for anything unanticipated that comes up. But it means that I won’t be prioritizing C or D. And if E heats up more than we currently expect it to, we’d need to revisit this plan. Does that sound right to you?”

By doing this, you’ll surface any areas where you might be prioritizing differently than your manager, and you’ll ensure that you’re on the same page about how you will – and crucially, won’t – be spending your time. Then, if a time-consuming request comes your way that’s out of sync with what you discussed, you can go back to your manager and say, “This would take significant time away from X and jeopardize my ability to meet our deadline there, so I’m going to keep this on the back burner for now.” Speaking of which…

2. Have a “someday/maybe” list. Rather than saying an outright “no,” it’s much easier to say, “I’m pretty busy with X and Y right now, but I’m going to add this to my list of possible projects to work on down the road.

3. Be clear about trade-offs. Remember that if you say yes to something new, you will be spending less time on something else. Be clear with your boss about those trade-offs too. For instance, you might say, “Accounting wanted me to spend a few days researching the Miller account. I can’t do that without moving the deadline for the new web content back by a week, so I think I should let them know it’s not feasible to do right now.”

4. Pay attention to how people you admire say no. You might be wary of saying pushing back on a request because you can’t imagine how to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate people. Look at colleagues who seem to do it successfully, and see if you can find language, tone, and other cues that you can adopt for yourself.

5. Keep your boss in the loop when you’re saying no or thinking about saying no. You don’t want to discover after you’ve already said no that your manager would have wanted you to take it on. Make sure that you’re keeping your manager looped in when you push back on project requests, so that she isn’t surprised if she hears about it later on and so that she has the chance to give her input as well.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 24 comments… read them below }

  1. 42*

    This is timely. I just had to have a project reassigned last week (my team is very responsive about hitting the brakes when we need to).

    Even so, I really really hate raising the flag when I’m starting to get overwhelmed. So when I absolutely have to, I always try to couch it within a potential solution–like, ‘here’s what I’m working on, here’s what I haven’t started yet, but I believe it’s best to prioritize that’, so that my boss can at least see that I’m trying to work it out on my own. At that point he either reassigns tasks, or goes to bat trying to push out timelines if he can’t.

    At least I feel like I’m presenting him with options rather than just laying it all on him to sort through.

  2. Relly*

    I’ve had to push back on work requests, especially when someone tries to dump a really simple task on me that they could do themselves. I usually say, “Sorry, [senior employee] really wants me to get this done first, but I’ll help you once I’m finished.” Usually they can suddenly get it done themselves.

  3. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’ve found that this is harder when your boss insists that everything is a priority and nothing can be postponed. That’s when I get creative. It helps to know what projects or tasks can be delayed without consequences or even without anyone noticing. And to know where corners can be cut – sometimes perfection isn’t necessary. I try to build in buffer time all the time, because I know nothing is going to change.

    1. BeenThere*

      I think my manager has finally understood that if he calls and shifts my priorities everyday, work we said would be done that week will not be. I have a complicated piece of code to rework which we expect to take a month. Unfortunately I constantly get task switched, 50% of these are caused directly by my manager. Simply put any interruption is going to cost 30 minutes to what I need to be working on plus the time taken to handle the interruption. I started a spreadsheet tracking this and gave it to boss and bosses boss. Then things started happening, including a new hire to replace that part. My spreadsheet also serves as my CYA come performance time. I still have to constantly say to manager “so this new piece of work does it have priority over current piece of work or is it going in the queue?”

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        So now you’re doing your manager’s job, too? It’s supposed to be their job to manage and prioritize resources!

        Maybe you should show the spreadsheet to your boss’ boss and they can fire them, and give the spreadsheet its own office!

        1. James M.*

          In software development, there are people-managers and there are project managers. Project managers manage prioritization, workloads, and resources for their team and act as a buffer between their team and Those Who Issue Tasks (who are usually people-managers). Project manager expect their team to give honest feedback about their workload, including asking for help when it’s needed.

          It sounds like BeenThere doesn’t have someone acting as a project manager.

          1. BeenThere*

            Cosmic Avenger, I do feel some days like I should swing around a big I’m-not-paid-to-be-a-manager bat then I think maybe I can get a higher rate by demonstrating those skills even if it’s something I dislike. Boss’ boss has seen the spreadsheet and authorized new hires which are exempt from the hiring freeze :)

            Alison is on the money here, the more senior you are the more of this stuff you are expected to manage. I’m a senior software engineer so time estimation and recognizing when that is going wrong in our priorities are expected skills. I’ve learnt from AAM that managers are people and they don’t always remember that they told you task A is super important when, they call and tell you task B is super important. It’s up to you to communicate clearly and say hey, is B more important than A?

            James M. Correct there are no PMs, this is a trading firm and unless you are on a massive project, $50 mill, there isn’t going to be a PM. Typically your direct manager allocates work and it’s really up to you to push back and manage priorities as they emerge. Everything is supposed to be based on business need however all businesses think their requests are more important. Of course programmers also have ideas what’s more important that doesn’t always align with the business goals ;)

    2. Elysian*

      Totally agree – I get assignments from many different people who are all technically my “bosses” and sometimes they’ll all insist that what they have given me is my most important project. Since I can’t have 4-5 “top priorities” sometimes this requires creative juggling. The best way I’ve found to deal with it when the going gets rough is to lay out my entire to-do list with one of them and force them to set priorities with me, sometimes even to help me set priorities for other people’s work. Then when I can pass to the buck to someone up the hierarchy if someone else has decided that their project is more important than another boss’s.

    3. Vicki*

      I was in a n all-hands engineering meeting once where one of the developers actually asked “So, you’re saying tat A, B, and C, are all Priority 1?”

      And the manager said Yes.

      1. NJ Anon*

        I used to tell an old boss that, by definition, only one thing can be a priority so pick one!

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    I think how you respond to the request depends very much on who’s asking. If it’s my boss, I use “If I do X now, I’ll have to put Y off until later.” (Which may result in Y dropping in priority and my taking on X, or may result in “okay, stick with what you were doing.”)

    When it’s a coworker who wants something from me (and it’s not a completely illegitimate request), I simply let her know where that request stands in the queue. “I won’t be able to get to that until Thursday with everything else on my plate.” Often simply telling them “I can do it, but not now” produces the same effect (coworker does the task herself) as saying no outright.

    If it’s an illegitimate request I just put on my best Miss Manners face and say, “I’m afraid that won’t be possible, I have too many other things on my plate.” I work on more than one account, and the teams that share me are *usually* reasonable about understanding that sometimes sharing means not getting what you want when you want it.

  5. LisaS*

    So timely! I am starting to feel like the Tasmanian devil in the old cartoons… but the project that’s been eating my life is on deadline now & gets printed and sent off to find work in a few days, so that will help.

    But I agree – prioritizing, backed up by the occasional, “No” or at least, “No, can’t look at that until (May)” or words to that effect is critical…

  6. Mona*

    Ditto on the timeliness. My co-worker is getting push back from one of her clients (internal sales people we do admin work for), to make personal vacation reservations for him and his wife and kids, to Europe no less. He doesn’t seem to understand that even though we make business travel reservations for him through the company website, that we can not make personal reservations for him and his family, we can’t do it for ourselves through the travel site (like Admins get to go anywhere on the company’s dime, Ha! But that is a post for another day). He even contacted our supervisor, and she pushed back on him too, and reiterated that personal travel booking was not allowed. Now he’s meeting with the supervisor when he comes in.

  7. V.V.*

    I like Ask a Manager because Alison usually approaches her blog from the “what would a reasonable boss do” perspective. All very good advice.

    I still would be happy to read the article about what to do when you are not allowed to say no and “push back” means being shown the door. Even if it falls under the category of the “This isn’t going to change. I am sorry.” column that appears sometimes.

  8. Traveller*

    The other point that I would add to this (good) list is to see if there is a way that you can help the person requesting the work find a solution that doesn’t take a lot of your own time.

    Sometimes rather than taking the work on myself, it is sufficient to take a few minutes to show someone how to look up the information or point them in the right direction of who else could help them solve their problem.

    Not that you want to give people the run-around….but this has been hugely helpful in my career to be able to say “I was talking to Mary about that topic last week, and I think she has some resources that could help you. I recommend you talk to her directly. I’ll drop her a quick note to expect your inquiry”. In this case they will perceive that you helped them, but it doesn’t burn up your time.

  9. Former Computer Professional*

    Umpity years ago I worked for someone who kept a big whiteboard in his office that listed every project his team had, who was assigned to it, the milestones, and what percentage of time the group (as a whole) was working on it, which added up to 100%.

    Every time his boss came in demanding that some new project had to be taken on and it was a “priority,” my boss would point at the whiteboard and say, “OK, which one of these projects would you like to back-burner to take this new one on?”

    Fortunately the boss’s boss was a fairly reasonable person and didn’t pull the old “Everything is priority!” crap. And if he had, my boss was a holy terror and would have never put up with that. (He really was a terror; the only reason he got away with it is that he got things -done-. )

  10. Beancounter in Texas*

    In my first full-time regular position as an administrative assistant, I worked with three people in a small group. My duties were beyond just assisting, but that’s another story. Three of us busted our butts and the engineer seemed to have the workload that allowed him to come in around 8:30, leave at 4:30 and complete about five Sudoku puzzles in-between (in which he would show me and sometimes ask whether I had completed a particular puzzle that day yet).

    One day, the group manager asked me to begin typing the engineer’s notes into the database for him, as a regular everyday task. Without thinking at all, I blurted out ‘No’ and explained to his surprised face that if any questions ever came up regarding the notes inputted under his initials, the database would show my name as the user who entered them, not his, and I did not want that liability. Truth was, I didn’t have the time and was insulted at the request, given his free time available at work to complete puzzles every day. My boss responded that he’d “think about it,” but never raised the issue again.

    I certainly could have handled that better, but I think my boss recognized my youth and ignorance in the ways of professional communication and gave me the benefit of a doubt. *whew*

  11. Layla*

    I think my problem is the project is a long running type & does not require too much time up front ( eg in the exploratory phase ) & a boss who doesn’t want to say no to the customer. How do I say no to squeezing in an extra few hrs worth of tasks to add on to my other million mini tasks ?

    1. Jaydee*

      I think you have to get good at estimating the total time the project will take (a skill I am still learning and am very much in need of). Then you can have the conversation with your boss that says “Yes, I am technically free at 10:00 on Thursday to meet with this new client. However, even though the initial work on these proposals only takes a few hours, we both know the work doesn’t end when the meeting ends. This type of project usually take X number of hours over Y number of months. Currently I am working on projects A, B, and C and cannot commit to adding this project unless I cut back somewhere else. Otherwise, I anticipate Project B wrapping up once this stage is done, and I could take on something new then.”

  12. Henna*

    I have a question: is there a way to request to not work with my manager? I work for a locally owned business currently just 1 day a week. I have mentioned to both the owner and the manager herself that I am just not comfortable with working with her to the point that I am physically getting sick and am anxiety ridden on the days I know she’ll be there. I didn’t realize how badly it effected me until she called in sick last week and I actually had fun and could relax without her there. She constantly harassed me, I’m not allowed to stand still unless on my break and if I do she makes me do roll playing (which I’ve told her in uncomfortable with) to test my knowledge of the products we sell. There’s so much more but my question is can I request to not work with my manager or do I just have to find a different job?? :(

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