What To Do If You’re Afraid to Say “No” At Work

Saying “no” to your boss can be an intimidating prospect, especially if your boss is known for surrounding himself with “yes men.” There's an uneven balance of power between a boss and employees, and saying “no” could land you in the unemployment line. Sometimes, it can even be hard to say “no” to coworkers who have no direct power over you, simply because you don’t want to ruffle any feathers.  

afraid to say no

At the same time, you don’t want to feel like people are taking advantage of you. So how do you stand up for yourself without putting your job on the line or labeling yourself a troublemaker? The following guidelines should help you overcome your reluctance without putting you in an awkward or untenable position.

Start Small

If you’re afraid, try taking baby steps. Like any other fear, the best way to overcome it is to build confidence. So rather than diving in head first and telling your boss you refuse to work overtime, lay some groundwork, such as mentioning how important your family and personal time are to you. Small successes can add up to big wins if you properly pace yourself.

Choose Your Battles

It's one thing to demand respect, and quite another to have a permanent chip on your shoulder. While it's perfectly understandable you don't want to pick up your boss’s dry cleaning or let your coworker take credit for your work, resisting every little request is just going to make you seem combative. Choosing the right moment is a vital part of learning how to say "no" successfully. 

Use Common Sense

Common sense is both cognitive and instinctual. It will help you choose your battles effectively. You might not feel like proofreading your coworker’s report, but if you have the time, why not go ahead and do it? If nothing else, your coworker will owe you a favor. However, if he asks you to write his report for him and put his name on it, that’s a whole different story. Whether you have the time or not, unethical requests should always be turned down. 

The same holds true with your boss. Just because she has the power to fire you does not mean you must comply with unethical or unreasonable demands. The key is figuring out the balance between being difficult and being sensible. Generally, you should be able to rely on your gut instinct to guide you in the right direction.

Remain Polite

Just because you're finding your voice doesn’t mean you have to be rude. If you don’t think it's appropriate to choose your boss’s wife’s birthday gift, you can still express yourself politely. There's no reason to snap back with “pick it out yourself!”  You can simply inform him you don’t feel comfortable crossing the line between professional and personal duties. Remember, the goal here is not to create conflict or unnecessary tension—the goal is to feel confident drawing boundaries.  You want your voice to be heard, not dreaded.

Explain Yourself

As children we were often told “no,” and when we asked our parents for an explanation, all we got in return was “because I said so." That was a really frustrating experience—one that does not need to be replicated as adults. If someone asks you for an explanation for why you're refusing to do something, your first instinct might be to say it's none of their business. However, if you're following the guidelines given here, you're not choosing say “no” arbitrarily. You have good, solid reasons for your decision, and therefore, you should be able to explain yourself easily.

Being open and honest about your reasoning will reinforce your decision, and it will also give the other person a better understanding of where you’re coming from. That way, not only are they less likely to feel offended, but they will also get a better idea of what types of requests you may or may not be amenable to in the future.

Getting over your fear of saying “no” at work will be challenging.  However, the payoff will be more than worth the effort.  Nobody wants to be a lap dog or a doormat. Everyone deserves to have their voice heard and their reasoning respected. Just make sure your reasons are valid, appropriate, and easy to express.

Say “yes” to saying “no” and your self-confidence—and self-respect—will flourish.

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