How to say no at work when you’re a people pleaser

a woman juggling countless projects shows she does not know how to say no at work

26% of employees have said, “Yes, I can take more work,” even though they couldn’t.

“The worst they can say is no.” That’s often the advice given to someone who’s afraid to make a request. But is “no” really the worst thing a person can say? What about saying “yes” when they don’t mean it?

In a survey by SimplyHired, 26% of employees admitted to having said, “Yes, I can take more work,” even though it was a lie. It’s easy to imagine why workers might avoid saying no. In unhealthy company cultures, many feel pressured to do excessive work for fear of being judged—and unfortunately, those in charge often reinforce that fear. A 2018 study conducted in the UK by Totaljobs found that 31% of bosses expect workers to stay past their regular hours.

Learning how to say no at work can be uncomfortable, especially if you tend to be a people pleaser. Naturally, you want to make your boss happy and maintain strong relationships with coworkers. But at what cost? If you say yes to everything, you’ll soon be on the road to burnout

To maintain peace of mind, maximize your productivity and excel at your job, it’s time to learn how to say no at work.

Table of contents
7 tips for how to say no at work without destroying relationships
Ideas for how to say no at work
“No” is not the worst thing you could say

7 tips for how to say no at work without destroying relationships

1. When someone requests something of you, ask for time to think about it.

If you’re accustomed to always saying “yes,” it will be your knee-jerk response to every request—whether you mean it or not. To break out of this habit, ask for time to think about it. That way, you can examine how you really feel about the request, and you can decide if you truly want to agree to it, or if you just felt pressured to.

Another reason this tip is useful is that sometimes people put you on the spot, and you don’t have the courage to tell them “no” in the moment. That’s okay. You can buy yourself some extra time. Tell them, “Let me think about it and get back to you.”

It’s okay to ask for more time, but don’t drag it out unnecessarily if you know your answer is “no.” This only causes you extra stress because you’ll be dreading it for longer, and it wastes the other person’s time.

2. Be honest.

Many workers feel tempted to tell white lies when they have to decline a request. The same SimplyHired survey mentioned above found that 27% of employees have lied when they said, "No, I'm too busy to take on more work."

But being dishonest can backfire. For instance, if you tell your coworker that you’re too busy to take on another task, but later, they see you volunteering to work on a new project, they’ll know you lied. Being deceived never feels good, and it can break down the trust between your coworkers and you.

Though it may feel uncomfortable at first, being honest with your boss, coworkers and clients will build trust and respect in the long run.

3. Don’t say “sorry” unless you have something to be sorry for.

For those who have a hard time saying no, the initial reaction to having to utter that terrifying word is to follow it with a string of apologies. But here’s the thing: If you want to remove the stigma around saying no, then you also need to remove the negative emotions you display around saying no.

Are you really sorry that you can’t make the conference call because it’s scheduled in the middle of your vacation? Nope, you’re setting healthy boundaries.

Are you really sorry that you have too much on your plate right now and can’t take on that extra project? Of course not, you’re protecting your time and productivity.

If you’ve done nothing wrong (and saying “no” does not mean you’ve done something wrong), leave out the apologies.

4. Don’t feel obligated to give more details than the other person has a right to know.

You don’t have to go into great detail about why you’re declining. A simple “my schedule is packed this week” is fine. However, there may be cases where the other person has a right to more information. For example, if it’s your boss and you’re declining something that is part of your job description, you will be expected to give a good explanation.

Here’s an example of a situation where you do not need to dive into more detail: Let’s say a coworker from a different team asks you for feedback on an app he’s been building, and you say, “I’ve got a lot of deadlines this week, so I won’t be able to do that for you.” You don’t have to launch into great detail about what those deadlines are for and what projects you’re working on.

5. Add encouragement at the end.

When you’re trying to maintain a good working relationship with someone, you never want to leave a meeting on a sour note. So after you’ve declined a request or rejected an idea, add something encouraging at the end, such as:

  • “I’m so honored you asked me, though!”
  • “I’d be happy to connect you with a colleague who might be interested in this project.”
  • “If I can support you in any other way, please reach out.”
  • “If you need help finding a replacement, let me know.”
  • “Even though we can’t execute it right now, that was a great idea! Thank you for sharing it with me.”

Effective communication can go a long way in strengthening the bond between you and a team member—even when you have to turn them down. 

6. Decide if this is a “no for now” or “no forever.”

Just because you’re saying no to this request at this time doesn’t mean you’ll always want to say no. This depends on your reason for declining. Is it just bad timing? Or is this a project you’d never have any interest in doing? Your reason for saying no will dictate what you say after.

For example, you might have avoided learning how to say no at work because you don’t want your boss, coworker or client to think you’re not dedicated to your work, but you really can’t accept the request right now. In that case, be sure to let them know that it’s just a “no for now.” Be clear that you want to leave the door open by saying something like, “Though I can’t take this on right now, I would love to work on something like this in the future. Please let me know the next time a similar opportunity comes up. My calendar has a lot more availability in January.”

However, if the request involves something you have zero interest in ever doing, don’t leave things open-ended. Say something like, “That isn’t aligned with our brand. But if you ever have ideas about _____, then I’d be happy to consider them.”

7. In the end, how the other person reacts is on them.

Perhaps the hardest and most important part of learning how to say no at work is acceptance. Accept that you cannot control how the other person will react. Accept that the other person may respond in a way that you don’t like.

That’s part of the risk in setting boundaries. But even if the other person is displeased with your rejection of their request, the result is still far better than if you had said yes out of pressure.

Ideas for how to say no at work

We get it. Learning how to say no at work is hard when you have to continue working with the other person. Sometimes you want to soften the blow and maintain a friendly relationship with your colleague. So here are some ideas for how to politely decline a request.

Start with one of these:

  • “I’d love to, but…”
  • “I wish I could, but…”
  • “Thanks so much for thinking of me! However…”
  • “I’m honored you asked for my help, but…”
  • “That sounds interesting! The only issue is…”

Followed by:

  • “That’s not something I can fit into my schedule right now.”
  • “I won’t be able to do/make it.”
  • “I’m working on other projects right now.”
  • “I’ve decided to move in a different direction.”
  • “That doesn’t sound like a good fit for me.”
  • “That’s not aligned with our company’s goals at the moment.”
  • “I’m stepping away from those kinds of projects so I can focus on _____.”
  • “I’ve already committed to ____ this week, and I can’t take on more.”

“No” is not the worst thing you could say

Learning how to say no at work doesn’t have to mean damaging relationships with your team members. By following these tips, you can honor your commitments, respect your boundaries and deepen the trust you have with your coworkers.

Still feel bad for saying no? Remember this: an honest “no” is better than a duplicitous “yes.” Every time you legitimately decline a request, you are making space for something that better aligns with your goals and values.

Want more tips on how you can get along better with your colleagues? Sign up for F4S to learn your team’s work style!

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