Saying no, at least where appropriate, is an important tool to ensure good morale, high productivity and delivering more value.  Just saying “no” is easy, having the statement be safe and make sense requires several prerequisite conditions.  

Self-knowledge:  Before saying no, an individual or team needs to have a good understanding of what they actually can do (skills) and their capacity (time).  Another idea that needs to be considered is whether the work is interesting and meshes with team values.   

Power:  Individuals and/or teams need to have the option to say no.  Assigning work or asking without the option of saying no is a symptom of a mismatch of power.  I once overheard a manager preface a conversation with “if you aren’t busy enough we are going to have to review your visa status.”  Regardless of capability or capacity, did the person being asked really have the option to say no? Similarly, the ability to negotiate priority, timing, and approach is a sign of a balance of power.  

Time to think:  Knee jerk or blanket negative (or positive) responses run the risk of being wrong or being misinterpreted. Time is needed to assess what the work is and why it is or isn’t important to the organization’s goals. Having the space to consider what is being asked for and to consider options or approaches might make it possible to say yes (if appropriate).

Trust: The conviction that your answer will be listened to and respected powers engagement. Relationships built on solid communication, transparency, and respect allow for a frank interchange that maximizes the ability to choose work based on capability and capacity (which boosts the delivery of value).  An important warning: without trust, saying no can be interpreted as not being a team player (a career-limiting perception). 

Knowledge of team and organizational goals: Having an unambiguous statement of purpose provides a platform for individuals and teams to maximize the delivery of value by deciding what should and shouldn’t be worked on at any specific point in time.  Work that does not move the organization closer to its goal should be deprioritized. Not knowing or having a goal will lead to conflict over whether any piece of work should be done. 

In most business environments, saying no can be a dangerous proposition. The danger can be decreased and the value of the resultant conversation increased if a few conditions are met.  None of the five conditions are specific to being able to say no but rather, adopting these attributes are a reflection of a healthy work environment. 

Next:  Strategies for saying no well.