Setting Boundaries: How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Why did the employee refuse to take on any more work? - He said he was already juggling too many balls, and he didn’t want to add a chainsaw to the mix.

It is important to say no at work when you cannot take on additional tasks, projects, or responsibilities without sacrificing the quality of your work or your well-being.

You will need to say no for a variety of reasons, including managing your time effectively ( by declining tasks that you cannot realistically complete, you can prioritize your workload and focus on tasks that are essential), maintaining quality (by saying no, you can focus on delivering high-quality work) and more importantly avoiding burnout!

Learning how to say ‘no’ professionally and empathetically, is a valuable skill that can help you maintain healthy boundaries and manage your workload effectively. Despite this, people often struggle to say no (I must admit there are instances where I thought saying no was not an option - which it is rarely the case) and this will not help you in the long run. However, I noticed that when I do say no, my colleagues are supportive of that decision - which is usually a good sign- it shows that your decision was right, and you have decent human beings as colleagues.

When I do say no, I ensure that:

I am being realistic and reliable: I realised that saying no can be a way to communicate that I am not able to take on a task without being unreliable. In fact, it can help you establish better working relationships.

I Show Empathy: I like the fact that my teammates approach me with requests. I let them know that I understand why it’s important to them. Acknowledge their perspective and make them feel heard. Also, here is a suggestion - to be truly empathetic, see if you can find an alternative for them. This can help the other person see that you are still supportive of their goals, even if you can’t directly contribute to them.

I am Being Clear and Direct: When saying no, it’s important to be clear and direct. Avoid making excuses or beating around the bush. Instead, I try to communicate my decision and the reasons for it.

I Follow Up: If I am unable to take on a new responsibility, I would consider following up with the person to see how things are going (assuming that is going to be useful and helpful). This helps me maintain a positive relationship and show that I am still interested in their success. I have often found out that there are things I could do to support them in the future e.g.: often as these projects evolve you might realise that it’s aligned with some of your core objectives as well.

Knowing When to Say Yes

Whilst saying “no” is an important skill to develop, there are certain situations where it may not be appropriate or effective to do so, especially in a scale-up culture.

From a performance culture perspective, you might want to consider saying “yes” instead of “no” when the opportunity:

Aligns with your long-term goals: For example, if your goal is to develop your leadership skills, saying “yes” to a new project that involves managing a team could be a valuable learning opportunity.

Helps you build relationships: In a scale-up culture, building strong relationships with colleagues, customers, and partners is often critical to success. Saying “yes” to a request that helps you build a relationship with someone can pay dividends in the long run. This works when dealing with people outside your company too - For example, if a customer asks for your help with a project, saying “yes” could help you build a stronger relationship with them.

Offers you a chance to develop a new skill set or learn something new: In a fast-paced and constantly changing scale-up environment, learning is often critical to staying ahead of the curve. Saying “yes” to a new project or responsibility that challenges you and helps you learn new skills can be a valuable investment in yourself. For example, saying “yes” to a new initiative that involves working with new technology or a tool you’re not familiar with can help you develop new skills and knowledge.

Enables you to make a positive impact: In a scale-up culture, making a positive impact (moving the needle) is often a key part of the mission and culture. Saying “yes” to an opportunity to make a positive impact can help you align with the company’s mission and values. This is true even if the task is outside your “core responsibilities” - e.g.: saying “yes” to a CSR opportunity to help your community or a cause that you care about can help you make a positive impact on both your company and your community.

However, don’t forget the key rule - if you feel that there is a significant risk of burnout you should still respond with a “no”.

I know this is easier said than done. My recommendation would be to start practicing this. Think about saying no as a service to others. I would also recommend the following two books that helped me immensely -

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown - This book explores the concept of essentialism, which is about focusing on the few things that are truly important and saying no to the rest - “It is a systematic discipline for discerning what is absolutely essential, then eliminating everything that is not, so we can make the highest possible contribution toward the things that really matter.”

The Power of No: Because One Little Word Can Bring Health, Abundance, and Happiness” by James and Claudia Altucher - This book explores the benefits of saying no and provides practical advice on how to do it in a way that is respectful and empathetic. As the book puts it: “No” is sometimes the hardest word to say. It’s also the most necessary.

PS: As a founder this is a topic I have often struggled with. Do you find it difficult to say no? If you are a founder and are struggling with this, especially in the context of building a high performance and empathetic company culture, reach out to me on LinkedIn, I’d love to hear from you.