How to Say No to Work Requests
Sometimes, you just have to say no. Whether it's your boss, coworkers, employees, or customers making requests (or demands), there's often a way to decline politely and without negative repercussions.
The starting point is to recognize that if you don't want to continually be on the receiving end of unwanted requests, you have to make a choice. It's an issue of realigning expectations. After all, every time you say yes to a work request, you are reinforcing the requester for asking. You're saying, fine, I've got all the time in the world and nothing better to do. You're encouraging the person to ask more and more of you, most likely sooner rather later.
In declining a request, it's important to avoid wishy-washy no's. That can happen if your response is something like "I'm not sure" or "Let me think about it" or "I'll let you know later." These are examples of mushy refusals. In using them, you may think you're setting the stage for eventually saying no, but in the absence of a clear-cut no, what the requester hears is yes. If you're going to say no, say it like you mean it.
Of course, it can be risky to say no to your boss, so a bit of diplomacy can help. For example, if you don't have the time, it may be that your boss doesn't realize you're overloaded, in which case you have to identify—clearly—what exactly you're busy with. Or you could suggest a task you can drop so as to take on the new one your boss wants you to tackle. You might even ask your boss to help you review your priorities so that together you determine what to work on and what to drop, reassign, or postpone.
I once heard some astute advice for saying no when someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do: Respond by saying, "Thank you for giving me the opportunity to practice saying no." In addition to being a clear "no," it usually elicits a smile, and often a comment like, "Clever response. I'll have to try it myself."
Of course, this may not be the wisest response to your higher-ups. The one time I tried it with my boss's boss, he responded, "Good try. Let me know when it's done." Yes, boss!