How To Pick Your Battles At The Office

Even the best employees have to say no once in a while.

We all want to be known as the person who can be counted on to deliver great work on time, every time. Not only does consistency make you a popular coworker, but it hopefully makes those above you take notice and helps you climb the career ladder faster.

But while saying yes to every request might make everyone happy (including yourself, in the short term), it isn’t always in your best interest. Sometimes, you need to say no.

“I had a client who really liked to be involved in a lot of things so she ended up taking on way more than she needed to,” says career coach Daisy Swan. “But at a certain point, it meant she was waking up at four in the morning to get work done. She was working a full day and into the evening. Finally, the words came out of her mouth: ‘I’m miserable.’”

To better understand when it’s appropriate to push back at work (and when it isn’t), we asked Swan to share some tips and tricks.

Scenario: You’re a walking ball of stress and if you take on any more work you’re going to explode

If your boss asks you to take on a project and you know you just don’t have the time to get it done, it’s a good idea to ignore the impulse to scream, “NO, THERE’S NO TIME!”

“Wording really depends on the relationship, but you can ask, ‘Can you help me put this in perspective in terms of when this really needs to be done? Because right now, I’m not going to be effective if I take on more,’” Swan says. “By framing it that way, you’re letting them know that you want to do as good of a job as possible and you really need to understand the level of prioritization. It forces them to consider what’s most important.”

As humans, we generally don’t like to show weakness, so by putting the task of prioritization back on them, you’re sparing yourself from having to say, “I just can’t.”

“Try to stay as clear and emotionally clean as possible when having this kind of conversation,” Swan adds. “Keep it cool and composed, but also realize you’re not wrong to be asking for this clarification.”

She suggests reframing your relationship with your boss for this type of conversation.

“One of the things I think a lot of people struggle with in situations where they are overwhelmed is that … they feel like they don’t have a right to ask,” she says. “And so what this requires is being able to look at your supervisor almost like a peer, so that they can see you as an individual, not as a commodity.”

Scenario: You’re being asked to do a job and you disagree with it or how you’re being asked to do it

You’re good at your job, so you would think it would follow that you’d be trusted to know how to do your job well. As most of us have experienced, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, you’re asked to do a task in a certain way, even though you feel sure you could do it more effectively your way.

Obviously saying “That’s a stupid idea” isn’t going to work. So, how do you voice your concerns?

“I think you have to ask yourself a lot of questions before you push back on a strategy,” says Swan. “Are you somebody who generally wants things to go in a different direction? Ask yourself: How many times have I butted heads with this person? And is it safe for me, at this point, to be in opposition? If there’s too much opposition, you could really get yourself into a situation you don’t want to be in.”

If you feel safe in your position and set in your view that a different strategy or plan would benefit everyone in the long run, then you better have your idea ready to share.

“You can’t just say, ‘No, I don’t like it,’” Swan says. “You have to have your alternative ready and your well-thought-out, bottom-line-driven reasons.”

Scenario: You just don’t want to

Just as “I don’t want to” didn’t work as an excuse when you were a kid, it’s not going to cut it at work.

“If you’re in a situation where it’s been made clear to you that they want it done and done a certain way, then you need to take care of it,” says Swan. For instance, sometimes things work their way down to you from your boss’ boss’ boss and you just have to do it. In those situations, it might be time to take one for the team and show your boss that you’re helping them. That can be the kind of favor you’ll be able to call in later.

Interview by Sara Nachlis