Saying No at Work: To Your Manager

On a previous episode of A Human Perspective, ‘Saying No at Work: Workload Edition’, we discussed the common occurrence of being overloaded at work, and how to push back or find ways around it. As a recap, I suggested to:

  1. Change your perspective — Don’t just focus on the “No” itself, focus on the why you need to say No.
  2. Understand your boundaries — Remind yourself of what you find acceptable and what you don’t.
  3. Consider what good work is to you and how you are able to go about doing that (Quality vs Quantity) — Remind yourself of how you do your best work. Is it by doing many things okay-ish, or a few things very well?
  4. Leverage your team / peers — Don’t forget, you’re not an island, you can and should leverage your colleagues and team members
  5. Talk to your manager — Here I encourage you to talk to your manager in a way that keeps them in the loop of your current workload, priorities and challenges. Find a way to pull them into your world.

Those were my 5 tips. However, I appreciate saying “No” is easier said than done, especially when you believe you have built a good reputation because you have always said, “Yes”. So let’s dive into this a little further.

Your One-to-Ones

Talking to your manager about the realities of your workload is easy to do when you have built a relationship through regular one-to-ones. This enables your manager to understand what is happening in your world in more of a real-time way, and makes tackling tricky topics much easier. A thoughtful manager will work with you to readjust.

I also encourage you to always start the conversation looking at the whole picture then becoming granular where necessary. When you start off granular, the conversation can get lost in that one detail, and you’ve missed the opportunity to tell your full story. Start big, then chop it down. Where a topic requires more time, arrange a separate one-off conversation to cover that.

Be Open & Vulnerable

Your one-to-ones can only truly be effective when you are able to be open and vulnerable. You shouldn’t always be doing a positive-spin sales pitch when you speak to your manager. You should feel comfortable to talk about the good, bad and downright ugly.

A lot of us have learnt how to put on a default mask of contentment when at work. We see this as being professional and showing we’re stable and able to handle anything. If deep down, this is not the case, you are misleading your manager and you are doing harm to yourself.

I know it’s not easy, and it’s really not what we’ve been taught to do in a professional setting, but I encourage you to be open and dare you to be vulnerable. Maybe, it’s just me, but this is when I am able to connect with people the most. The professional shell cracks and I care differently.

Know Your Manager

I have a caveat to the point I’ve just made. Consider your manager’s personality to determine your approach. Do you genuinely feel they care about people? Do you believe they care about you? There are some managers out there who are very pleasant but don’t give a f*ck about people. There are others that are a little rough around the edges but would give their right arm for their people. And there are people in between, where does your manager fall?

I have tried to be open and vulnerable with all my managers. Most saw it as an asset. In fact, it brought us closer together and I enjoyed my job even more. Regardless of the outcome, I didn’t regret being open and sometimes vulnerable. I have learnt if I can’t be myself somewhere, it’s simply not the place for me. Because I believe giving everyone the chance to show you who they are through how they handle you showing them who you are is super important. If it’s not rewarding, it certainly will be revealing.

Get Over Yourself

Quite often, when we find we’re good at something, we feel we have to be the one to do any and everything else that comes up in the future. No one is going to do it as well as you so you continuously put yourself forward. But guess what… it doesn’t have to be you. Your way is A way, it’s not necessarily the only way or the best way… just A way. You have to get over yourself.

I’ve had to learn this lesson myself. In my case, I started to resent the work I was doing and how much more I was doing than others — what once brought me joy was making me miserable. I was so overloaded, I simply didn’t enjoy the challenge or the work anymore, and I felt extremely undervalued.

Don’t let your ego take the reins, it will mess you up and make you angry and bitter…. or so I’ve heard…

Know Your Priorities

It’s very important you understand what is on your plate at the moment, where they sit in terms of priority and any associated deadlines. When talking to your manager, you need to use this information to set the scene. Ask your manager where they feel this project sits in relation to your current priorities. It may be there is a genuine need to make this project a priority, and that’s ok. However, the problem still remains the same, I can’t do it all right now, so what can I drop or put on the back-burner in order to get this done? Ask their opinion but also make some suggestions of your own.

Explore Alternatives

Ok, so it’s decided. You can’t take this project on. The stars simply do not align.

Don’t just leave the conversation there. Work with your manager to explore alternatives. Can the project go to one or two members of your team? Can a peer take it on? Is this a project that can be picked up again at an agreed point in time? Can it become a group project so the workload and responsibility is shared?

Consider the scope of the project and the potential solutions to ensure it is given the appropriate attention needed.

Be Prepared to Feel Like Sh*t

If you are someone who always says Yes, not saying Yes can be tough. In fact, it can be painful. You will perceive yourself to be letting your manager down, letting yourself down, letting your family and goodness knows who or what else down.

You’re going to feel like a bad person, you may feel frickin’ evil. You may even want to run back to apologise and say Yes, because for some reason, you think it’s acceptable for the burden to always be yours.

Be ready for these feelings to flow in. Take the time to break those feelings down and digest them. What do you feel exactly? And why? And what is behind that? What did someone tell you or what did you see that makes you believe that? Really take the time to reflect when in this uncomfortable space, you’ll learn so much about yourself and you’ll learn how to better manage these feelings.

Finally, Sometimes It’s Simply Time To Leave

If you find you’re caught up in this habit loop or your manager is incapable of being considerate enough, it doesn’t matter how hard you try to make it work, the problem is not going to go away. At that point, it’s time to leave. Things will not get better, they will spiral one way or another. Do yourself a favour, let go and start afresh in a new space, with new people, committed to working in a new way.

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Lola Oguntokun

Lola Oguntokun

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I help build, shape and champion innovative companies and culture.