Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
When’s the last time you said “No” at work? My mail at Ask a Manager is full of letters from people who want to say no to something their employer is asking of them, but feel that they can’t—that part of having a job is putting up with whatever’s asked of them, or that pushing back would forever taint them in their manager’s eyes.
Sometimes the thing people want to say no to is an assignment that’s far afield from their core role, or a business trip that would keep them away from home for weeks, or even a promotion that they simply don’t want. Other times, they want to say no to overwhelming workload or chronically unreasonable deadlines. These are all reasonable topics to speak up about, under the right circumstances, but too often employees assume there’s no room to do that.
Often what messes with people’s heads and keeps them from pushing back when they should are the built-in power dynamics between manager and employee, as in this letter from someone whose boss wanted her to do her kid’s homework:
I’m a receptionist, and although I have a cordial relationship with my supervisor, it’s pretty strictly professional. The other day, she came to me at reception during working hours and basically asked if I would do part of her son’s homework assignment for him. I think it’s because she knows I have a design background and the part of his project she was asking me to do was to create a logo. While she was technically asking me, her approach was the same as when she asks if I have enough downtime to take on admin tasks for the office, and although it was not explicit, I felt pressure to accept it like a work assignment.
And yet employees often don’t recognize their own power in a situation. Here’s someone who didn’t realize that he could push back on unrealistic demands from the job that he had already resigned from:
At the beginning of the year, I gave notice at my current position. The decision was necessary due to severe burnout issues (to the point where I have been having anxiety attacks) and a terrible boss … Ever since I gave notice, demand on me has tripled. I am being asked to complete projects that normally would not be addressed till after I depart. I want to do my best to make this a smooth transition and leave things in good shape, but I just can’t accomplish everything I’m being asked to. When I say that, I’m ignored. My overall job performance is suffering as the burnout increases. It feels like a never-ending cycle.
Contrary to people’s fears, though, there is room to say no or to push back, if you frame it the right way—and your life might significantly improve if you do. Here’s someone who was ready to break under the pressure of her new job when she originally wrote to me:
I accepted a new job. It’s a better cultural fit, I love my team, and I’m proud of the work we’re doing. … Unfortunately, despite me asking questions in the interview process about work/life balance—and explaining that if this is a “no personal life” job, I’m not the right candidate— … there is none. NONE. I’m pulling 70-hour weeks, which is not what we discussed during interviewing. I am so busy that I eat only two meals a day … I barely have time to go to the bathroom, and I still can’t finish the tasks in front of me … I’m perpetually exhausted and anxious. I get maybe half a day off each Sat/Sun and I spend most of that time trying to catch up on sleep. I cry at least a few times a week. This is not who I want to be … My ego, reason, and pride all say “stay in the job” but my gut says “run like hell.”
I suggested that she talk to her boss about how unrealistic her workload was and that she was promised very different hours when she accepted the job. She did, and here’s what happened:
I wound up talking with my boss and pretty much laid it out (without implying that I was going to quit immediately). I took your suggestion to heart and mentioned that in the interview process, I’d specifically been told that the hours were NOT 75-80 hour weeks. She agreed that my workload is too heavy, and she posted job listings for two new staffers who should be able to help me out. She’s already been interviewing people, and she’s been checking in to see how I’m doing.
Saying no at work doesn’t have to be an aggressive “No, I refuse to do that” (and in most cases, shouldn’t be, if you want to preserve your relationships there). But you can often push back quite effectively by saying things like, “We’d originally agreed to X, and that was important to me. Is there a way we can make that work?” or “Hmmm, I’m concerned about Y if we go that route,” or “I don’t have time to do X this week but I could do Y.”
Sometimes it’s just a simple assertion that you’ll be taking another path, like with the person whose boss was overloading him with work after he resigned: “I can’t work 12-hours days during my final weeks here. I’ll aim to get X and Y finished before I leave, but you’ll need a different plan for the rest.”
Sometimes a no is less about saying no than it is about realizing that your manager might not have all the information that you have—and that her perspective would change if she did. Too often people assume things like, “Well, my boss must know how high my workload is, so if she’s piling on more, she just doesn’t care and expects me to get it all done … ” when in fact the boss doesn’t realize the full extent of the existing workload and would modify it if she did. You also see this play out with things like “My boss must know how long it’ll take me to complete this task so I won’t bother pointing out I’ll need to be here until midnight tonight.” Your boss does not always have the same info you do, or had it at one point and has since forgotten it. It can be highly useful—to your boss as well as to you—if you speak up and say, “Hey, just to make sure we’re on the same page, it’ll take about eight hours to do it that way.”
And sometimes a no might even be something like, “You’ve been asking me lately to do more X. I can of course help out in a pinch, but I want to be honest—I moved into this job to get away from X, and I hadn’t realized it would be a part of my role here. Is it something that you’re committed to having the person in my role do, or is there any flexibility there?”
Of course, whether and when to do this depends on things like how reasonable or unreasonable the request being made of you is, how much your employer values you, and how much goodwill you’ve built up. And you need to do it judiciously; if you’re pushing back on every request, you’re quickly going to run through the political capital you need.
And yes, ultimately your manager does have the ability to say, “Sorry, this is the job. Take it or leave it.” If that happens, you need to decide whether you’re willing to stay in the gig, knowing that these are the conditions you’d need to accept. But much more often than people realize, there is room to push back or renegotiate when something’s unreasonable … and doing so tends to make people much happier at work.