When Should You Take No For An Answer

When Should You Take No For an Answer?

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

The consequences of overwork are evident in my coaching practice. In startups, established companies and nonprofits I see teams in a constant state of fire-fighting and leaders who are unable to prioritize, where the quality of work is suffering, individuals are experiencing stress and anxiety, and valuable people are burning out. In a previous post, I wrote about building the “no” muscle—learning to say “no” to certain activities in service of being able to say “yes” to the right things.

But what if you say “no” and your colleagues won’t accept it? “I can say no ‘til the cows come home,” said Gayle, a member of the leadership team of a growing nonprofit organization, “but it’s not heard. I get push back. We have a culture of yes, and it’s killing our team.”

We typically think of a “Culture of Yes” as a good thing, particularly when it comes to customer service. “Yes” is positive. It signals a can-do spirit and a willingness to overcome obstacles. We admire a leader who is so determined to achieve his vision that “he won’t take no for an answer.” (Though in light of “me too,” we should question this admiration.) And leadership coaches from the world of improv help teams practice their “Yes and” as a way of growing positivity and building on the contributions of team members rather than shutting down or critiquing. “No” is associated with negativity and criticism. “Yes” is generous and creative.

Yet in some organizations, like Gayle’s, yes has run amok. Mission-driven and highly collaborative, they have developed a culture where all the work is urgent. (We’re helping children! We’re saving the planet!) They pay lip service to work-life balance, but because they are passionate about the mission and value being team players, they don’t want to let their teammates down, resulting in everyone working long hours as a matter of course. Even those who feel overworked, themselves, may not always support colleagues who try to set boundaries. And when someone tries to refuse a new project, they are often cajoled or guilted into changing their answer.

The refusal to hear and accept no—and the underlying lack of trust and respect signified by that deafness—is counterproductive and damaging. Studies show that there are significant negative personal consequences (to health and relationships) from working more than 40 hours a week. And even if you don’t care about people, it turns out that not much good work happens after 50 hours, and productivity declines by 25% after 60 hours. Of course, there will be times when a team needs to pull long hours to meet a deadline or accomplish a goal, but extreme hours should be the exception, not the rule. As one CEO I know put it, you can’t drive a car with the engine red-lining all the time. Leaders and organizations need to get serious about “working smarter, not harder” by setting clear priorities and adequately resourcing them and making trade-offs or adding resources when new needs or projects arise.

Unfortunately, many companies are unwilling to create policies or a culture that allows employees to set meaningful boundaries. A recent story on Wired illustrated the consequences of Facebook’s refusal to permit employees to work part-time. As a result, a data scientist mom of three wound up saying the biggest “no” of all—quitting. Effectively, Sheryl Sandberg had forced a choice: either “Lean In” or drop out, with no middle ground. This is a shame, and it shouldn’t have to be so.

Creating a workplace where boundaries are respected requires more than just a policy. Research has demonstrated the importance of “cultural work-life support” in companies and organizations that institute initiatives meant to accommodate work-life balance, such as flex-time and part-time options. “Cultural support operates at two interactive levels: the work group level, where one receives relational support from managers or co-workers; and the organizational level where resources and overarching cultural values and norms are engendered.” This cultural support challenges the “ideal worker myth”—the image of a worker who has no commitments outside of work—and makes it possible for employees to set boundaries and still be considered valuable. Depending on your role in an organization, you can help provide this culture of support.


  • Set clear direction and priorities with appropriate resourcing that doesn’t depend on redlining the engine on a regular basis. Practice discipline when adding new initiatives. Make hard choices.
  • Model setting boundaries. Even if you are writing emails at 2:00 a.m., queue it up to send at 6:00.
  • Listen for signs of strain among your team. Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel, or is this the new normal? Demonstrate appreciation and self-manage if you have a tendency to drive others hard.


  • Monitor your team’s workload and communicate cross-functionally and up to leadership when they are getting stretched thin. Advocate for your team.
  • Prioritize and exercise discipline in taking on new projects and initiatives.
  • Manage your own workload through delegation where possible.
  • Support your team in making trade-offs among priorities. You can’t have more than one #1 priority.

Individual Contributors

  • Advise your manager about the state of your workload before you get to the breaking point.
  • When you need to say no, acknowledge the request and suggest solutions or trade-offs.
  • Try to stay out of victim mode

Each person in an organization—from the CEO to the Head of HR to the individual colleagues on a team—has a role to play in creating a culture where individuals are empowered to say “no” and where their co-workers graciously accept that answer.