When Beth Cronin started out as an associate at the law firm Trenam Kemker, she never once told a partner that she was too busy to do a project. Instead, she learned the right way to say no.
"First, I developed a reputation as being earnest and hardworking," says Cronin. "Then I made sure to understand what the project entailed, when my manager needed it and whether I could realistically deliver high-quality work in the allotted amount of time. The way to handle a request is never just to say 'I'm too busy.'" Today she's co-chair of the litigation practice group at the firm, which has offices in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla.
Nowadays many companies expect their employees to do more work in less time. From interns to managing partners, people say yes to these demands because they want to be team players, look eager or simply be nice. But saying no can sometimes be an asset to your career.
"People need to change their mindset about agreeing to everything," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author of The Book of No. "By saying no, you can focus on your goals." Saying yes to everything can damage your reputation and hurt your career. "The expectation of assigning partners is that you will do a project thoroughly, and on time," says Cronin. "If you don't, you will get the reputation that you can't be trusted."
Take time to think before committing to a new project, and before you say no, consider the ramifications. By accepting and executing many tasks, junior employees have the opportunity to prove themselves. For more senior staffers, there's a difference between being asked to do something because you have a unique expertise, and being asked to help on a project that other people could also execute.
"When most people climb a career ladder, they typically start out by agreeing to most things they're asked to do that vaguely relate to the job description," says Nanette Gartrell, M.D., an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSF and the author of My Answer is No... If That's Okay With You. "But after time, the more successful you are, the more you're asked to do, and the more you need to say no." If you're a middle manager and you're asked to change the ink in the printer, you have the option to beg off the job, says Gartrell. But interns or junior staff better get to it.
Before you say no, spell out your current responsibilities and ask your supervisor to help you prioritize. "You have to communicate that you don't want to decline a project, but you're trying to be realistic," says Cronin. Explain that you have a real conflict and you're trying to resolve it. If a supervisor asks you to take on a project when you've already committed to something else, say "I'd love to help you on this. I have X responsibility for partner Y on Tuesday. How much time can I have to get this project back to you?" Keep your explanation as simple as possible.
While saying no, try to help solve the requester's problem. If possible, offer an alternative. See if there are ways to limit the scope of the project. "Offer them some options," says Michael Roberto, a professor at Bryant University and the author of Why Great Leaders Don't Take Yes for an Answer. "Extend them an olive branch. Say, 'I can't join that task force, but I'd like to contribute in this other way."
Say no in person. "E-mail messages can get misconstrued," says Newman. "The willingness that you express through your tone of voice cannot be read in an e-mail."
When you decline an opportunity, consider turning it into a positive situation for someone who could benefit from additional exposure or responsibility. Check with your colleague first, and then suggest his or her name to the person making the request. "Always try to offer something when you're turning someone down," says Gartrell.
And don't be afraid to draw boundaries between your professional and personal lives, especially if you work in an environment where colleagues often socialize after hours. "The best excuse you could give is family," says Gartrell. "If it's beyond work hours, it's difficult for people to be critical of that choice."