The art of saying No

In a recent survey at a major public service organisation, 45% of people questioned reported that they regularly put in extra unpaid hours to meet their workload demands.

Subsequent research revealed the cause of the problem – people tended to over commit and had difficulty saying “NO”.

There was a culture in the organisation of saying “YES” to easily. This resulted in many missed deadlines, an atmosphere of excessive urgency, and a considerable degree of energy consumed in making excuses, renegotiating commitments and frantically shifting priorities. Not surprisingly, there was an impact on the quality of their customer service as well.

They had missed the single most important golden rule in managing time and ensuring a reasonable work life balance, which is to never commit to do more than you can actually achieve.

To achieve this you need to not only need to have good time management skills but also develop the communication skill of a diplomat – balancing assertiveness with tact and empathy.

A simple and effective route to being diplomatically assertive is to adopt the attitude of a professional project manager. Good project managers know that commitments have to be realistic, and that customer trust is built upon a track record of meeting commitments.

They know that by saying “yes” to a new requirement may well have an impact on the other things they have committed to in the past.  However, it may be that this is acceptable, that the new requirement is more important than some of the existing ones.  They will therefore respond by saying something like; “Yes in principle, but I need to evaluate the impact on the current plan”. This demonstrates a positive attitude while deferring a decision until the full impact of saying “yes” has been evaluated.

Try finding a dozen different ways of saying NO with diplomacy or buying yourself time before making a promise. Being reliable and meeting your commitments is more important that being apparently ever willing – and its better for your work life balance!


To contact Nick Woodeson, please email him at