When Beth Cronin started out as an associate at the law firm Trenam Kemker, she never once told a partner that she was too busy to do a project. Instead, she learned the right way to say no. "First, I developed a reputation as being earnest and hardworking," says Cronin. "Then I made sure to understand what the project entailed, when my manager needed it and whether I could realistically deliver high-quality work in the allotted amount of time. The way to handle a request is never just to say 'I'm too busy.'" Today she's co-chair of the litigation practice group at the firm, which has offices in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla.
Nowadays many companies expect their employees to do more work in less time. From interns to managing partners, people say yes to these demands because they want to be team players, look eager or simply be nice. But saying no can sometimes be an asset to your career. "People need to change their mindset about agreeing to everything," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and the author ofThe Book of No. "By saying no, you can focus on your goals." Saying yes to everything can damage your reputation and hurt your career. "The expectation of assigning partners is that you will do a project thoroughly, and on time," says Cronin. "If you don't, you will get the reputation that you can't be trusted."
Take Time to Consider the Request
Determine how much time you'll need to deliver quality work, and how the assignment fits in to your existing workload. "In general before you say yes, you want to think strategically about what advantage doing something has for you," says Susan Newman, Ph.D.
Offer an Alternative
While saying no, try to help the person who approached you about the task. Ask if you can contribute in a different way, or tackle the project at a later date.
Say No in Person
"E-mail messages can get misconstrued," says Newman. "The willingness that you express through your tone of voice cannot be read in an e-mail."
Keep your explanation short and simple. By laying out your entire calendar, you run the risk that your boss will challenge the importance of other duties.
Consider the Consequences
Weigh the risks and benefits of every refusal, both personally and professionally. If you're the low man on the totem pole, you have less leverage when it comes to declining a request. As a more senior staffer, saying yes to one opportunity might get in the way of meeting your real professional goals, or make you feel exhausted and burned out.