How To Say "No" At Work Without Sounding Like A Jerk


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Founder & Maker 🚀 Rebel Psychologist 🤓 Enabling anyone to become a better leader in 2 mins a day at BUNCH.

There you are: the all-reliable engineering lead. You build at lightning speed, put out fires quickly, and jump over hurdles with ease. Your team has learned to rely on you, and well, who can blame them?

But lately, things are looking a little different:

  • You're hacking past work hours;
  • things are breaking when you're out;
  • your team can't make progress without your input.

It’s likely that you’ve learned to team-please long before management was part of the question. Now, your difficulty to say “no” is getting in your way.

You’re not alone

According to our data at BUNCH (we're an AI leadership coach that serves up 2-minute daily advice to over 13,000 users), saying no is hard for nearly every high performer. Delegation is the sixth most common challenge for all managers on the app - beating topics like productivity, staying focused, and motivating the team.

So what’s the secret to delegation? 

The secret to delegation is learning to say no. Steve Jobs famously said, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Saying no is the hardest part because, as a founder, you constantly want to take advantage of opportunities. But the reality is that success favors those that can say no to 99 things and do the 1 thing right. 

“No” is often equated with being mean or unhelpful. But “no” isn’t about shutting projects and people down. In fact, using “no” is one of the best ways to support your team, manage your workload, and meet your goals.

The 5 No’s You Need

As a trained psychologist who has coached over 400 founders -- many of whom have struggled with saying “no” -- I can recommend using these 5 tactics:

1. The Pause

Take a step back and map out what needs to be done. You can’t commit to anything until you have a clear understanding of the task. People are racing ahead to get things done, but haven’t thought through what’s actually required.

Why it works: According to Managing Humans author Michael Lopp, this tactic forces everyone to slow down and think: “Saying no is saying “stop”, and in a valley full of people who thrive on endless movement, the ability to strategically choose when it’s time to stop is the sign of a manager willing to defy convention.”

2. The Agreement

If you prioritize one thing, you have to de-prioritize something else. You can say something like “We can’t fit both, and this will have a bigger impact. But of course, I am happy to follow your advice on which one we prioritize” (You’re basically saying: If we do X, we must do Y). This tactic is especially effective when the core idea behind the proposal is good, but project timelines need shifting.

Why it works: Camille Fournier, author of The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Managing Growth and Change, explains: “Responding with positivity while still articulating the boundaries of reality will get you into the major leagues of senior leadership”. If you want to get on your stakeholders’ good side, this is the way!

3. The Commitment

When you have too many things on your plate and can't dedicate the time needed, say something like: “Realistically, I can’t take this on because I wouldn’t be doing it justice. I’m already working on the migration”.

Why it works: Showing that you’re true to your word shows others they can rely on you. Take it from Alex Weber, CGO at N26: “It’s things like being conscious of what you can and cannot do, and never promising more, that build trust with your team.”

4. The Allotment

If you’re crunched for time and the new project/ task literally doesn’t fit, help estimate and illustrate the crunch: “The feature request I’m working on will take another 3 hours. I also have a bug fix that’ll take 45 minutes, and a refactor that will take 4 hours. So most likely, if we try to do this all, something won’t fit/will slip.”

Why it works: Showing how long each task takes boosts your credibility and demonstrates ownership. According to CTO and co-founder of BUNCH, Charles Ahmadzadeh, this gives your stakeholders and team an insight into what’s involved — so when you say no, you have time estimates to justify it.

5. The Twist

Use this when what’s being asked of you is unrealistic, and you want to get to the root of the idea: “I think that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t fit in the roadmap as is. What if it looked like {this}?”

Why it works: This helps your team see new possibilities instead of getting caught in a one-size-fits-all solution. Stever Robbins, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of FTP Software, says questions engage others and reveal more innovative solutions.

Make “no” part of your legacy

The more we use “no” in an effective way, instead of a negative or demeaning way, the more we have the power to meet deadlines, build trust with the team, and meet our goals. So the next time someone asks you to do something, instead of jumping to accommodate it and potentially putting other things at risk, remember the power “no” holds.

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