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You Can Say NO

, | April 23, 2024

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jim Bruce, Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.  Jim may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Most of us are besieged with all manner of requests for help.  Some requests are for a quick conversation, others are requests to review a document, and still others are for you to add to what you are doing and have a minor or even a major role in a new project.  Most of us are conditioned to say “yes” to any and all of these requests, adding them to what may already be a full or even overflowing plate.  We convince ourselves to say yes, without evaluating the request, because we want to be a team player.  We believe that taking on this request will demonstrate that we want to do what’s best for a significant part of the organization and that somehow it can be squeezed in.   My personal experience is that I have always underestimated how much of my time and effort will be involved in such efforts.

Furthermore, we know that most of our efforts to squeeze it in lead to an overload that we, and those around us, “pay” for.   Yet, we still say “Yes.”  We always want to be, and be seen, as a team player.  That is important.  However, studies have shown that we say yes, most often, because we have a habit, a learned behavior, of always saying yes.  This habit was deeply instilled in us by our parents.  Although it was a long time ago, I cannot remember when either of my parents asked me to do something where the “desired” behavior included an option of not doing it.  So, I learned, like most of us did, to always answer “yes” in such situations.[1]   And I even suspect that for all my life, I’ve most often answered “yes” to questions asking me to do something for someone or some organization.   It’s long been hardwired in by my childhood experiences.  I suspect that this is true for most individuals.   It doesn’t come naturally.

So, having never (as far as I can remember) responded to such a question with “no,” I suspect that may be true for many of us.  While you don’t want to be known as a “no” person, you do want to be seen as a team player.  That makes the situation difficult.  Devoting time to too many projects can result in stress and ineffectiveness.  This leads to you and your manager setting limits and ensuring that you work on projects with the most value to the organization.

Since most of us have little experience saying “no” effectively, we need to learn.  Rebecca Knight, writing in the Harvard Business Review [2], makes these suggestions:

  1. Understand the request.  What are the details?  Who is the client?  How large is the request?  Is it important to the organization?  Why does it matter?  To you?  How does the priority of the request fit into the priorities of your existing work?  Is this something you would need to do?  Or, could it be one by your existing staff, or would additional staff be required?  Could it be done later?
  1. Be straightforward.  If neither you nor your staff have the bandwidth, nor there is an institutional requirement/need for you to be involved, be honest and upfront with the individual.  Explain your reasoning.
  1. Offer a lifeline.  It’s in your best interest to maintain a good relationship with the person making the request.  Find a way to provide some help to the individual.  Perhaps you can do some brainstorming to better understand how the individual’s need fits with the entire infrastructure, suggest someone else who could meet the needs, or serve as a sounding board to what they want to accomplish.
  1. Don’t be mean.  Don’t make the person asking for help feel bad.  You want to be seen as someone who would help if the circumstances were different.
  1. Adjust your expectations.  Even if you have followed these steps, you may still have an unhappy individual who comments negatively to colleagues.  While your interactions with the individual may influence post interactions behaviors, they do not control them.  Assume that this is an initial reaction and that your relationship will return to what it was before you turned down the request.  Do all you can to maintain the relationship you had before you turned down his request for help.
  1. Practice.  If you have had little experience at saying “no,” practice.   Karen Dillon, co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life? [3] recommends practicing out loud, alone or with a trusted friend.  She says to listen to yourself.  She notes you need to be clear and to speak in a way that you are respected.  Saying no is something that you can learn and deliver in a calm, confident manner.

One final note: Saying no can change working relationships, particularly in the short term. You won’t be able to please everyone all the time. So, take care of yourself, your personal well-being, and a good work/life balance high on your list of personal priorities.

Do have a great week.  Spring is here!   . .  .  .  .  . jim

Last week, we asked which best describes your thoughts about applying what you’ve learned through MOR

  • 51% said to both work and personal settings
  • 25% said only to the work setting
  • 24% said only to the personal setting

These results are so interesting – while the majority of us feel lessons learned through MOR apply to both work and personal settings, and one-fourth felt they apply only to work, another one-fourth felt they only apply to personal settings. The message is clear: while designed for applying in the work context, so many of the lessons extend across different areas of life. What’s a novel way you could apply MOR learnings?


  1. Michael Grothaus, Your Ultimate Guide To Saying “No” To People You Can’t Say “No”  Fast Company,
  1. Rebecca Knight, How to Say No to Taking on More Work, Harvard Business Review.
  2. Clayton Christensen, James Alworth, and Karen Dillon, How Will you Measure Your Life, Harper-Collins, 2012