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Saying “No” at Work

Danielle Bertini

Saying no to people is never an easy task, and when you add in the factor of work it becomes even more daunting. As important as it is to say no, many of us feel dread when we have to do it. Saying no can be especially difficult because we treat agreement as affection and denial as rejection. When people disagree with us or turn us down, we often incorrectly interpret it as evidence of hostility. It feels like a threat when someone declines our invitations, disagrees with our ideas, or opposes our plans. The article by Joseph Grenny (2019) offers six conditions that can heighten this perceived risk even more:

⦁ You’re the new kid: When you are the new person in the group, colleagues may make quick inferences about your personality from this single interaction. For example, they may see you are selfish, stubborn, or closed-minded.
⦁ Your personal brand is already compromised: Saying no becomes even riskier if your past reputation makes it easy to dismiss your position as an expression of your flaws rather than facts.
⦁ Your loyalty is being tested: Groups making decisions sometimes equate disagreement with disloyalty. Agreeing with a position can be seen as a test of commitment to the groups’ interests.
⦁ You’re up against a powerful and insecure leader: If you are dealing with an insecure leader, they might personalize your reservations and decide that you are not disagreeing with their idea, but rather you are disagreeing with them.
⦁ You’re going against a group decision: Groups can be difficult, especially when they unconsciously begin to value connection over results. When this happens, naysayers are seen as ruining the party. Your potentially helpful opposition can become resented rather than welcomed.
⦁ Everyone has decision fatigue: Saying no can become more difficult if a group has been exhausted by the decision-making process. If people are not careful, they can begin to prize resolution over results. In their minds, it can feel like waste or unnecessary work to “rehash” rather than just come to a decision.

Understanding the psychology of the problem is a good place to start to mitigate risk. Although it might be unavoidable that others will be disappointed by your responses, Grenny (2019) offers some tips for protecting yourself against overstated negative attributions when you disagree:

⦁ Show your work: By just saying no, this can allow others to fill the vacuum you leave with their fears and biases. Therefore, share your logic, facts, reasoning behind your decisions, and values that motivate your conclusion. People often care less about what you think than why you think it.
⦁ Acknowledge value-trade-offs: Decisions usually are not black and white, right and wrong. They typically involve some sort of trade-off. Because of this, make sure to honor the worthy values that may motivate others’ positions.
⦁ Be tentatively confident: While it is important to take a firm stand, it is also important to not take an overstated one. You can become more alienated than convincing when you make absolute statements, such as, “the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is…” or “the right answer is…” Show that you are a thoughtful person who has arrived at a conclusion with statements like “I believe…” or “I’ve concluded…”
⦁ Ask for permission to say no: It can be helpful to ask for permission to say no when dealing with a person in a position of authority, especially someone who might misinterpret your denial as disrespect. This shows that you respect their authority while also maintaining your integrity. Grenny (2019) offers a great example on how to do this. “For example, you could say, ‘Boss, you’ve asked me to take on a new project. I think it is a bad idea for me to take it on, and I’d like to share my reasons. If, however, you don’t want to hear them, I’ll take it on and do my best. What would you like?’” If your boss refuses to hear your thoughts, that allows you to decide if this is an environment you would like to stay in for the future.


Grenny, J. (2019, August 05). How to Say “No” at Work Without Making Enemies.  Retrieved from

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