How to Say ‘No’ Without Ruining your Reputation: Assertiveness for Success

BlogCareer AdviceLeadership Development Posted: Thursday 3rd March 2016 by

It’s important to say ‘no’ sometimes – for your sanity, for your work-life balance and actually, for the sake of the quality of your work. It’s a potent word. It demonstrates assertiveness and an ability to prioritise and it’s used frequently by the most successful people.

However, it’s also a hard word to hear and can make the person declining appear cold and selfish. According to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, this is especially true of women. Women are expected to help colleagues out because they are seen as more ‘communal’. When they say ‘no’ they often “receive less favourable reviews and fewer rewards” than a man who has refused to help.

Saying ‘no’ to everything really will ruin your reputation, and quite rightly, but you should be allowed to be selective about what you say ‘yes’ to. The key to enabling that selectivity without affecting your career prospects is to learn to say it in the right way:

1. Don’t just say ‘no’. You may feel like you don’t owe anyone an explanation, but if you don’t give one people will jump to their own conclusions.

2. Say ‘no’ face to face or on the phone. Try to avoid saying ‘no’ on email as the tone can be misinterpreted.

3. Say ‘no, not right now’. If you are genuinely busy, offering to take something on at a later date could be the right answer. You stop yourself from being overloaded right now and they don’t hear an out and out refusal.

4. Share your accountability. Explain that taking on this task would mean letting someone else down. It stops people assuming you just don’t care.

5. Refer them to someone/something else. If you’re too busy or it’s not your area of expertise introduce them to someone who you think can help or refer them to a website, book or other resource. It means they are not leaving empty-handed.

6. Act as a bridge. If you know more than one person is trying to achieve the same goal then introduce them and let them help each other. It gives them another avenue to investigate rather than leaving them at a dead end.

7. Create a community. It may not be feasible to say ‘yes’ to lots of people, but if they are asking for the same thing it may make sense to deal with them as a batch and, for example, invite them to an online group.

Some people just will not take ‘no’ for an answer, no matter how many of the above methods you have employed. Organisational psychologist and author, Adam Grant, sent the following email to one such person: “I’m sorry to disappoint. One of my goals for this year is to improve my ability to say no—you are a tough audience. I suppose it’s good practice…” Apparently, he got the message.


Human Results offer expert HR services on retainer, or on a one-off basis to help guide you through the daily challenges of managing your business from a people perspective, including employee engagement, dispute resolution and resolving workplace conflict.

We also provide expert leadership development coaching programmes to secure long-term capability within your organisation, and a critical support structure for your leaders.

For more information, call Human Results on 01952 288361 for a no obligation, confidential discussion.

Blog post content provided by Abintegro; an engaging, content-rich, online platform for career management and transition.

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