When to Say “No”

Whether you’re just starting out in your career or whether you’re well into it, it’s important to take on new opportunities. Joining a task force, working on a cross-departmental project, taking on a group presentation to a new client . . . things like that give you a chance to find out what you like and what you’re good at. Taking on such projects tests your will and your fortitude, especially those projects that are likely to stretch beyond the usual forty- or fifty-hour workweek.

The key is to take on projects that you know you can complete. You need to feel confident that you can deliver. You don’t want to be the one who volunteers and then doesn’t carry her own weight. Whatever you take on, you have to follow through. You have to push yourself to do it, even if it means you might have to sacrifice your personal time as your work week extends to seventy or eighty hours for a certain period of time. The last thing you want is to sign up for an extra project and then be the one who always leaves early or never shows up. You don’t want to be the one who makes a lot of promises but never delivers. You don’t want to be that person.

Opportunities and risk go hand in hand, and saying “yes” to opportunity means you’re taking on some risk. Saying “no” also can be risky, even when it’s the right thing to do.

Sometimes you don’t have the luxury of volunteering for extra work. Your boss volunteers you instead, saddling you with a project or a presentation that you have little time for. Some of these projects might not be to your liking, or they might not provide you with the kind of visibility that will put you in line for a promotion. Sometimes you just know that there’s no way you can take on another project and give it your all.

So what do you do when you know the right thing is to say “no”?

The key here is to decline politely without actually saying “no.” One way to do this is to say something like, “This sounds like a great project, and I’d be happy to help. I’m working on Project X, Y, and Z right now, and so I could take this on early next month. Would that work for you?” or something like, “I’d love to work on this. Do you see this as a priority over Project A, which is due at the end of the week?” Responses like this let your boss know that you’re both enthusiastic and willing while at the same time prompting him to consider your workload and how much time you could reasonably dedicate to the project and still get the job done.

Saying “no” can be uncomfortable, but it’s often necessary. Only you know how much you can really handle. While you don’t want to be afraid to push yourself, it’s important to know when to say enough is enough—just so long as you say it in a way that keeps your good reputation intact.

About the Author: Jena Abernathy is a nationally recognized leader in human capital management, performance excellence, and organizational development. A sought-after speaker, she is a passionate advocate for women in executive and governing board roles. She has written for and been featured in a wide variety of media, including CNN, the Financial Times, CBS Money Watch, FOX Business, and the Miami Herald.  You can connect with Jena on Twitter or at www.jenaabernathy.com.

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