4 Times You Should Say No to Extra Work (And How to Do It)

Man enforcing boundaries

Think about your typical work week. How much of what you do falls within your official job description? If you’re anything like most top performers, chances are that over the course of your career, you’ve taken on a lot of additional responsibilities beyond your main job. But have you ever wondered how much these extra duties really contribute to your professional growth versus just wearing you out?

With business moving faster and at a more demanding pace than ever before, it’s no surprise that many professionals are finding themselves in a situation where they have to accomplish more with less time and fewer resources. When a company is short-staffed, the workload tends to get shifted onto the shoulders of the remaining team members.

Sensitive Strivers and Saying No at Work

Sensitive Strivers (high-achievers who are also highly sensitive) often become the go-to people when it comes to taking on additional tasks. In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve noticed Sensitive Strivers are not only driven to excel, but they also have a deep need to please others. They yearn for the metaphorical gold stars that can come with exceeding expectations and going the extra mile.

Sure, the validation may give these Sensitive Strivers a temporary boost in commitment and performance. But in the long run, it can lead to exhaustion and end up backfiring, hurting the organization’s results.

Let me tell you about Lane, a project manager who found himself in this situation when his team was hit with a 15% reduction in staffing. Lane, being the generous and loyal person he is (sometimes maybe a bit too much), wanted to show his support and alleviate his boss’s stress during this crisis. So, without hesitation, he volunteered to take on three major projects right away.

Sounds heroic, right? Well, it didn’t take Lane long to realize that he had bitten off more than he could chew. He was constantly working and had zero time for himself, his family, or friends. He was on the express train to burnout with no stops in sight.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should never lend a hand when your company or team is understaffed or you’re asked to take on additional responsibilities. But if you are like Lane and have a tendency to people-please or say yes to everything, it’s critical to learn how to say no with professionalism and grace.

When – and How – to Say No to Extra Work

Say no when … it puts your primary job responsibilities at risk.

Picture this: you’re part of the product team, but suddenly, you’re asked to lend a hand with marketing. The problem is that the marketing tasks might consume so much of your time that your core job responsibilities suffer.

Before saying no, evaluate whether taking on the additional responsibilities will compromise your ability to deliver top-notch work on your primary job responsibilities consistently. If the task doesn’t bring significant learning opportunities or skill development, it’s best to politely decline.

But how?

Instead of simply saying, “Sorry, I can’t take this on,” try the relational account. This means clarifying why saying no is in the best interest of everyone. For example, you can say, “If I help with this, I won’t be able to keep the commitments that I’ve already made.” Or you can be more specific, stating, “I wouldn’t be able to do justice to your project, and it would also impact the quality of my other work.” Research indicates that using this strategy can help others see you as a caring and conscientious person.

Say no when … it’s not your scope of work.

In today’s world of matrixed teams and collaborative workflows, it’s easy to find yourself doing work that isn’t really your job or even in your scope of work. For example, if you are working in sales, you shouldn’t be saddled with the task of fielding customer service inquiries. Lane, the project manager I mentioned earlier, found himself pulled into juggling tasks that belonged to the director of operations.

When Lane realized that he couldn’t keep up with these operational tasks, he talked to his boss and explained the situation: “I can’t continue doing these operational duties. It’s negatively impacting my role’s core functions. But I’m happy to create detailed documentation so that these items can be smoothly handed over to the operations team.”

On the other hand, if you’re okay with taking on additional responsibilities and believe it will enhance your personal development, make sure to clearly state what you want to gain from the new responsibility. This could include better assignments down the line, a step toward a promotion, or even recognition at a board meeting.

Also, consider requesting a compensation adjustment to reflect the added value you bring to the table. You could say, “For the last six months, I’ve assumed responsibilities A, B, and C. What’s the best way to ensure my compensation matches my increased scope?”

Say no when … there’s no end in sight.

Be sure to grasp the full picture before agreeing to take on extra tasks. Avoid mismatched objectives by asking for well-defined terms on any new initiative. Seek specifics: How long will this assignment last? How many meetings will I need to attend? Once you have a clear understanding, then you can confidently decide if it’s a good match.

If it is not a good fit, deliver your answer with gratitude and honesty by saying something like: “Thank you for the opportunity. I appreciate that you thought to offer me a part in it. I have to decline, though. With my current responsibilities, I wouldn’t be able to give it my full attention. It would be best to offer it to someone who has the bandwidth to help it reach its potential.”

See if you can help in some smaller way. You can offer to attend brainstorming sessions or provide input on the project plan. Contributing where you can showcases your proactive nature and proves you’re a team player.

Say no when … the request is unrealistic.

Imagine senior leadership asking for a complete project plan in just three days. You know it’s an impossible ask, but what’s the best approach? Try a positive no, which allows you to protect energy and maintain the relationship. In response, you could explain what you can realistically achieve within the given time frame. For example, you might say, “Delivering a finished plan by Friday afternoon is not possible, but I can provide a first draft. How does that sound?” Alternatively, you could suggest adapting the timeline: “I understand this project is a priority. Friday is not feasible, but I can give you the completed project by Tuesday afternoon.”

Another option is to offer to connect them with someone else who can assist, like a helpful colleague or a reliable contractor. You could say, “My bandwidth is a bit strapped right now, but this sounds like a great project for my colleague. I believe their expertise will be an asset to the project. I’ll send you their contact info.”

Remember, you can’t say no to everything, but being able to say no for the right reasons will boost your confidence and empower you to go further in your career.

Want to Learn More? Check Out My LinkedIn Learning Course

This course summarizes tools and strategies I’ve used over the past ten years with coaching clients at companies like Google, Amazon, and more.

The importance of saying no from Learning to Say No with Confidence and Grace by Melody Wilding

Inside, you’ll discover how to: 

  • Set boundaries at work that boost your confidence and well-being
  • Decline requests gracefully and preserve your relationships
  • Push back on your boss respectfully
  • Develop confidence by conquering fears that block you from saying no 

One of the toughest parts of saying no is what to say, so throughout the course, I’ll share helpful scripts and language you can use at work starting today. 

When you sign up for the course now, you get access to the course plus additional worksheets, templates, and more. 

Start the course now for free with LinkedIn Premium, or sign up for just $24.99.

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Hi, I'm Melody

I help smart, sensitive high-achievers break free from imposter syndrome and overthinking so they can find the confidence to lead effectively.


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