The importance of being able (or unable) to say ‘no’


Courtney Carr, an Associate Consultant for DXC Australia and a fellow DXC blogger, wrote me an interesting note in response to my last blog post, and it inspired me to write this most recent one.

“It’s extremely dangerous for our mental and physical health to be expected to take everything on, and almost always leads to burn out,” Courtney wrote. “How do we break this stigma and encourage our colleagues to feel comfortable turning things down when they need to?”

First, we need to understand why we struggle to say no. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a graduate or a woman but, I struggle with it because I feel I have to do it all. It’s as if I have something to prove – that I’m not a lazy, stubborn, self-entitled millennial (I would go on a full scale rant here but, thankfully, Courtney already wrote a blog about this stereotype).

Previously, I’ve mentioned that all women are experts in saying ‘no’ to their most difficult, misunderstanding and unruly customers… their kids! So how do we go about breaking the age-old perception that women should “do it all” while also telling our colleagues no when necessary? We need to recognise the dire consequences of overburdening ourselves. Perhaps it comes back to the stereotype that women are inherently “nurturers” and “helpers” and research from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) shows that women are more likely than men to say yes to workplace requests. There is also the added fear that by saying no, you are projecting a negative image of yourself; not a team player, unhelpful, selfish with your time, and we fear it’ll impact performance reviews.

However, we need to recognise the dire consequences of overburdening ourselves. It’s important to note that if you don’t have the capacity, you are the one that is going to be staying back late, missing out on social events, skipping lunch, being stressed and explaining to your boss why you didn’t do your job because you were doing someone else’s (awkward!).

Speaking to Courtney about this, she wondered if it was worth it, if your inability to say no was leading to the above issues. What’s the point? Exercise, social interactions, a healthy diet, and regular breaks from work are all equally important for managing stress for the sake of ourselves. We’re all human. We need balance.

Courtney was recently fortunate enough to be invited to attend a “Mental Health Hour” initiative, which looked at ways to combat high stress levels that arise as a result of organisational change. This involved taking time out of day-to-day activities to break up into small groups and discuss key indicators of stress in the workplace, while sharing their own personal coping strategies. In Courtney’s group, the majority agreed they suffered from taking too much on, and identified that not saying no to requests is one of the biggest stressors.

The worrying part here is that this often leads to burnout. Burnout occurs when people go through periods of excessive and prolonged stress, leading to feelings of helplessness and detachment, causing people to disengage and lose motivation, sleep and their appetite. If you are experiencing any of the above, I suggest reading more about burnout prevention and recovery.

So how do we start saying that all important ‘no’?

To start with, we need to stop blaming ourselves. When it comes to turning down workplace requests, women, according to SIOP, feel more guilt than their male counterparts. Tending to view it as a personal failure. Challenging the “do it all” mentality must be a collective effort, supported by our colleagues and leaders. We need to be empowering each other to feel comfortable saying no, and to always question the necessity of some of these requests.

Here are a few useful strategies when saying “no”:

  • Explain why you can’t (without getting into a rant of how much work you must do). Perhaps this particular task just doesn’t fit into your current set of priorities, or you don’t believe it aligns with the organisation’s strategic business objectives.
  • Demonstrate than you have listened and be empathetic. Cheat sheet recommends that you ensure the person you’re talking to knows you’ve listened. This task, to them, is important which is why they want it completed. Be respectful.
  • Utilise your team to offer a solution where possible. The top coping mechanism for stress that came up in Courtney’s Mental Health Hour group was knowing when to trust your team and delegate tasks accordingly. So, ask yourself (and the requestor): Does this really need to be done today? Am I really the only person in the team who can get it done? You might just be the first person that came to their mind, utilise your networks, someone else might have the knowledge and capacity to help.
  • Be speedy in your response. There’s nothing worse than waiting a long time to be told ‘no’ – they could have found someone else to help them by now, this is a sure-fire way to upset your colleagues.
  • Be empathetic and compassionate. As stated by The Harvard Business Review this is important to stop the perception that you’re just being mean and unhelpful, and can foster positive relationships with people. Your colleague probably needs help because they’re stressed out and approaching a deadline, isn’t that something we can all empathise with?

Remember, your colleagues are more likely to help you if you help them. I’m sure we can all agree that what goes around usually comes around in these situations. We need to ensure that we are fostering an organisational culture based on empathy, understanding of balance, and awareness of the stressors that conflicting priorities can create for a team. If you are still unsure about how to go about turning something down, or tackling the potential conflict that might follow, ask your line managers and colleagues how they do it.

So, we challenge you to be especially brave this week! Have a go at saying no to something.

Share your stories below, have you ever had a negative reaction from a boss or colleague when turning down a piece of work?  We’d love to hear your experiences!


  1. Cathartic says:

    Comment/addition from a reader: Great article Cat and Courtney and I found the guilt response comparison especially interesting.

    Two strategies I’d like to add to the mix when saying no are:

    1. Clarifying what you can do, to the requestor (as appropriate)

    2. Explaining that keeping your word to them is something important to you (keeping agreements is how we live in integrity), and that you would not be able to do so (for whatever reason).


  1. […] my post last month we talked about the importance of saying “no” to avoid workplace burnout. But saying “no,” especially to a superior, or even a colleague you like and get on with, takes […]

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