When And How To Say No To Work

When and How to say no to work 

By Joel Cheng

Director, Strategic Partnerships (ODI) 



For people who work in organisations as part of a team, it’s almost inevitable that various work requests will be sent your way - be it in the form of a manager asking you to complete a report or a colleague asking for help on an unfinished project. More often than not, our attitude should be to approach such requests in a helpful manner, as ultimately we’re all working towards achieving our organisation’s goals. However, there’ll be occasions when you have to say “NO” to work. 

This might sound strange, but in certain situations and circumstances, accepting extra work can actually be detrimental to both your personal goals and the organisation’s. Let’s take a look at WHEN such situations can arise and HOW we should handle them. 




1. It distracts you from completing key tasks

As part of greater whole in the organisation, you have to manage roles and responsibilities that have been delegated to you by the upper management. Every individual’s key tasks work together to produce results for the organisation and these tasks have to be done in a timely and competent manner. When work is sent your way that distracts you from completing such key tasks, it might be a clear sign that you should say “NO”. At the end of the day, you have to deliver on what is expected of you and it should be a priority. 

2. It’s not within your abilities at the moment

Every individual has different levels of competencies in various areas, and your position in the organisation should be one that maximises and leverages your skill set. For example, an internal auditor will quite likely not be asked to give creative strategy ideas on the organisation’s marketing projects - an obvious misalignment in task and individual. That’s not to say someone who’s an auditor cannot be creative, but in this task, someone else, say a senior marketing executive, is more suited to take on the responsibility. Similar to the example above, if you’re unable to confidently deliver a competent result on a work request, you should say “NO”. You shouldn’t accept work requests for the sake of helping if the quality of the work is compromised. 

3. It doesn’t have a high organisational impact

Time and effort are both resources that are precious in the working environment. On a whole, organisations will perform better if their people are making the best use of their time and effort to work towards achieving goals that have a greater impact on the business than goals that don’t. In this case, you should say “NO” to work requests that don’t have a high impact and are less urgent. 



1. Politely: In all communications between you and your colleagues, you should strive to be polite in communicating your “NO”. Being polite helps to maintain professionalism as well as to not let the requester feel as if they’ve been “blown off” by you. 

2. Assertively: When saying “NO”, be firm and hold on to your stance. Once you’ve carefully evaluated the work request and have come to a conclusion that you should say “NO”, it should be communicated in a way that shows your resolve. Take note that being firm in your “NO” doesn’t mean you have to be loud or aggressive. Aim to show that you’ve made up your mind and stand by what you say. 

3. Clearly: Being clear is very important when saying “NO” to work. This is to help the requester understand your reason or reasons behind saying “NO” so that there won’t be any misunderstandings. Clarity helps both parties understand where they are at and allows them to move forward on the same page. 


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