Summary. If you’re like most people, you’re constantly fielding requests at work. The asks are formal and informal, large and small, and from all across the organization. The inflow is so great, you can’t possibly agree to everything. So it’s crucial to learn when to say no and how to say both no and yes. Tulgan, who spent decades studying what makes people the most highly valued, indispensable employees at organizations, presents a three-part framework for managing the flood of requests. First, assess each ask, systematically gathering the details that will allow you to make an informed judgment. If you do have to turn someone down, deliver a well-reasoned no. A good no is all about timing and logic—it’s in order whenever things are not allowed, cannot be done, or should not be done. Moreover, it’s communicated in a way that makes the asker feel respected. If the answer is yes, make it an effective one by explaining how you think you can help, pinning down the deliverables, and laying out a focused plan for execution. A considered no protects you. A good yes allows you to serve others, add value, and collaborate effectively. If you become skilled at conveying both, you can avoid burnout, increase your influence, and enhance your reputation.
If you’re like most people, you’re constantly fielding requests at work. The asks are formal and informal, large and small, and from all across the organization. The inflow is so great, you can’t possibly agree to everything. So it’s crucial to learn when to say no and how to say both no and yes.
Tulgan, who spent decades studying what makes people the most highly valued, indispensable employees at organizations, presents a three-part framework for managing the flood of requests. First, assess each ask, systematically gathering the details that will allow you to make an informed judgment. If you do have to turn someone down, deliver a well-reasoned no. A good no is all about timing and logic—it’s in order whenever things are not allowed, cannot be done, or should not be done. Moreover, it’s communicated in a way that makes the asker feel respected. If the answer is yes, make it an effective one by explaining how you think you can help, pinning down the deliverables, and laying out a focused plan for execution.
A considered no protects you. A good yes allows you to serve others, add value, and collaborate effectively. If you become skilled at conveying both, you can avoid burnout, increase your influence, and enhance your reputation.
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Ever since companies started working more cross-functionally and collaboratively, exchanging top-down management for dotted-line reporting with fuzzy accountability, work has gotten more complicated. All day every day, most of us are fielding requests. The asks are formal and informal, large and small. They’re not just from direct bosses and teammates but also from “internal customers” all over the organizational chart. Add to this the demands of external stakeholders, of family, friends, and acquaintances, and sometimes even of complete strangers. The requests keep coming—across tables and through zoom screens, by phone, e-mail, and instant message.
The inflow is daunting. And now more than ever, your professional success and personal well-being depend on how you manage it. You can’t say yes to everyone and everything and do all of it well. When you take on too many or the wrong things, you waste time, energy, and money and distract yourself from what’s really important. Still, no one wants to anger or disappoint colleagues or other contacts—or, worse, turn down key career and life opportunities.
You must therefore learn when and how to say both no and yes. A considered no protects you. The right yes allows you to serve others, make a difference, collaborate successfully, and increase your influence. You want to gain a reputation for saying no at the right times for the right reasons and make every single yes really count.
How do you do it? Through decades of research into what makes people the most highly valued, indispensable employees at hundreds of organizations, I have uncovered a framework that I believe works. It has three parts: assess the ask, deliver a well-reasoned no, and give a yes that sets you up for success.
Assess the Ask
When making a financial investment, most of us do some due diligence—seeking out more information so that we can make a sound judgment. When you say yes or no to a request, you’re deciding where to invest your personal resources, so give the choice the same careful consideration.
That starts with insisting on a well-defined ask. Sometimes the ask is sloppy, so you misunderstand: It sounds like more or less than it is, or it sends you off in the wrong direction. That’s why you ought to help yourself and the asker by getting critical details about the request. You can develop a reputation for being highly responsive if you engage in this way. It doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to the ask. It simply signals that you’re taking your counterparts’ needs seriously, whether you can help or not.
You should ask questions and take notes, clarifying every aspect of the request, including the costs and benefits. Think of the intake memos that lawyers, accountants, and doctors write—documents created for their own reference to capture the particulars of each client’s need. Essentially, you’re helping the asker fine-tune the request into a proposal. The memo should cover the following questions:
- What is today’s date and time? (This will help you track how the project evolves.)
- Who is the asker?
- What is the deliverable being requested? Be specific.
- By when does it need to be accomplished?
- What resources will be required?
- Who is the source of authority on this issue, and do you have that person or group’s approval?
- What are the possible benefits?
- What are the obvious and hidden costs?
The bigger or more complicated the ask, the more information you should gather. Sometimes honoring the request is out of the question. Or an ask appears so insignificant that an intake memo seems unnecessary—or would take longer to draft than simply completing the request. Indeed, if you tried to drill down into every microask, people might accuse you of creating ridiculous bureaucracy. And they’d have a point. But the vast majority of requests will deserve at least some further investigation before you make a call on them. You’ll find that small asks can balloon into big ones or that what at first sounds impossible turns out to be much easier than you assumed. You might see that a seemingly silly ask is actually smart, or vice versa. That’s why the intake memo should become a rock-solid habit for everything except the most minor and urgent requests.
Be sure you share your list with the asker to confirm that you’re on the same page. Imagine the confidence your counterparts will gain in your promises if they see you’re creating a mutually approved record of what they need—and how much more readily they’ll accept your judgment of yes or no.
Zane (whose name has been changed to protect confidentiality) is an extremely capable business analyst in a large consumer-electronics company. Until recently, he had a hard time saying no at work, especially to his boss and other senior leaders, because he was so determined to prove his value.
Inundated by requests, he often found himself terribly overcommitted, working harder and harder, juggling competing priorities as fast as he could. He never intended to overpromise, but he was often doubling back to renegotiate delivery dates even as he accepted new requests. Soon he started dropping balls, making mistakes, and irritating colleagues. Every incoming request felt like an attack to fend off, so at least for a while, no seemed like the only answer.
Finally, Zane’s manager, Aiko, intervened and asked that all requests for his time go through her. Although he temporarily lost his power to say yes or no, he learned a lot from his boss’s process, and eventually, Zane took it over himself.
“We had an intake form,” Zane explains. “Who is making and authorizing this request? Is this data we have or data we need to get or start capturing going forward? Do you need analysis, and is that something we can do? And what is the business objective?”
Even after answering those questions, prioritizing competing requests could often be tricky. In one instance, Zane’s boss’s boss tasked him with setting up a new data-capture system “as fast as possible,” just as he was pulling together a report for Aiko. The latter was a two-day project. Building the new system would take about two weeks. Should he immediately focus on the biggest big shot or first get the quick win?
Another challenge for Zane was ranking competing requests from his peers against those from his two direct reports and from people elsewhere in the organization and outside it. But using the disciplined intake-memo process, Zane got better and better at comparing how urgent or important each project really was, making smart decisions, and demonstrating to everyone his true service mindset without overextending himself.
A Well-Reasoned No
A thoughtful no, delivered at the right time, can be a huge boon, saving time and trouble for everybody down the road.
A bad no, hastily decided, causes problems for everybody, especially you. Bad nos happen when you haven’t properly assessed the ask; when you let decisions be driven by personal biases, including dislike of the asker or dismissals of people who don’t seem important enough; or when you decline simply because you’ve said yes to too many other things and don’t have any capacity left. Bad nos often cause you to miss out on meaningful experiences and are also more likely to get overruled, leaving hard feelings on both sides.
A good no is all about timing and logic. You should say no to things that are not allowed, cannot be done, or that, on balance, should not be done. I call these the “no gates,” a concept I borrowed from a project management technique called stage-gate reviews, which divide initiatives into distinct phases and then subject each to a “go, no go” decision.
The first gate is the easiest to understand. If there are procedures, guidelines, or regulations that prohibit you from doing something—or someone has already made it clear that this category of work is off-limits to you, at least for now—then you simply give a straight no. (If you think it’s against the rules for everybody, please also consider talking the requester out of pursuing the idea.)
What do you say? “I don’t have discretion here. This request violates policy/rules/law. So you really shouldn’t make it at all. Perhaps I can help you reframe your request within the rules so that it can then be considered.”
Turning people down at the second gate is also straightforward (at least sometimes). If the request isn’t feasible, you say, “I simply can’t do it.” If you just don’t have the ability to deliver on it, then you say, “Sorry, that’s outside my skill set. I’m not even close.”
What if you don’t currently have the experience and skills to handle the request quickly and confidently—but you could acquire them? The answer still might be no. But the answer could also be “This is not my specialty. That said, if you accept that I’d need extra time to climb a learning curve, then I’ll take a crack at it.” It could be a development opportunity for you and, in the end, give the requester a new go-to person (you) on this sort of project.
The most common reason for “I cannot,” however, is overcommitment. In those instances, people tend to say things like “With all the other priorities I’m balancing, I don’t have the availability to do it anytime soon.” That’s a forced no. If you can’t avoid it, try to preserve the opportunity to fulfill the request later or else help out down the road when you are available.
What’s the best way to respond? “I’m already committed to other responsibilities and projects. I’d love to do this for you at a later time. If that’s not possible, I’d love to be of service somehow in the future.”
The third gate is the trickiest because whether something merits doing isn’t always clear at first. You need to make a judgment on the likelihood of your success, on the potential return on investment, and on fit with your and your organization’s priorities. And sometimes the answer to the request is “maybe” or “not yet.”
What do you say in those cases? “I need to know more. Let me ask you the following questions….” Essentially, you’re getting the person in need of help to make a more thorough or convincing proposal.
What if you do understand the ask and you don’t think it’s a worthwhile goal for you right now? You might say, “That’s not something I should say yes to at this time because the likelihood of success is low,” “…the necessary resources are too great,” “…it’s not in alignment with the current priorities,” or “…the likely outcome is [otherwise somehow not desirable].”
When it comes to timing, the most important thing is to thoroughly engage with the request. Then answer quickly. Don’t give a precipitous no, or you’ll risk seeming dismissive. But don’t string your counterpart along, either. If your no really means “not at the moment but soon,” then let the person know that. If the answer is “No, but I know somebody who can” or “No, but I can provide you with aid that will help somebody else do it,” then say that as soon as possible. If the answer is “I may not, cannot, or should not do it, and it is a bad idea, so you shouldn’t do it either,” have that conversation before the asker presses you or someone else further.
Once Zane routinely began tuning in to every ask and doing his due diligence, he found it much easier to see when he should decline a request and became far more confident delivering a well-reasoned no—or a “not yet.” For example, around the time that he was balancing that report for Aiko with setting up the new system for her boss, Zane had to decline or delay filling several other requests. As usual, he gave many standard “That data is simply not in the system” responses. But he also said no to a request for a wild-goose chase from a peer of his boss who had a history of wasting his time. “I wasn’t building a correlation model again to once again not find the pattern he was looking for,” Zane explains, noting that he also gave Aiko a heads-up to make sure nobody would be surprised. He also delayed completing a request from another executive peer of Aiko’s, saying something along the lines of “We’ve never collected that particular data before. Maybe we can start, but I wouldn’t be free to work on that for a few weeks.”
Because of Zane’s increasingly thorough, businesslike approach, his colleagues came to deeply value his assessments and responses and—over time—his judgment.
An Effective Yes
Every good no makes room for a better yes—one that adds value, builds relationships, and enhances your reputation.
What is a better yes?
It’s aligned with the mission, values, priorities, ground rules, and marching orders from above. It’s for something that you can do, ideally well, fast, and with confidence. In other words, it involves one of your specialties—or an opportunity to build a new one. It allows you to make an investment of time, energy, and resources in something that has a high likelihood of success and offers significant potential benefits.
The key to a great yes is clear communication and a focused plan for execution. First, explain exactly why you’re saying yes: You can enrich the project, you want to collaborate, you see the benefits. Then pin down your plan of action, especially for a deliverable of any scope.
Make sure you agree on the details, including what the requester needs from you, what you will do together, how and when the work will be done, who has oversight, and when you’ll discuss the issue next. If this is a multistep process, you might need to have several of those conversations as you go along.
As his reputation for professionalism and good judgment grew, Zane was in greater demand but also had more and more discretion to choose among competing responsibilities and projects. As the company moved toward a more sophisticated approach to business intelligence (data collection, analysis, reporting, and modeling for prediction), his input was sought by a number of executives he had worked with, and his opinion was given a lot of weight. As a result, Zane was made the lead analyst on the new enterprise-resource-management system implementation, which he describes as “the greatest professional development experience” of his career.
Most people have too much to do and too little time. Saying yes to requests from bosses, teammates, and others can make you feel important but can be a prescription for burnout.
The only way to be sustainably successful is to get really good at saying no in a way that makes people feel respected and to say yes only when your reasoning is sound and you have a clear plan of attack.
A version of this article appeared in the September–October 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review.