how can I let coworkers know “no” is an acceptable answer?

by Alison Green on February 5, 2020

A reader writes:

I am a project manager who works mainly on projects with our most junior team members. I love it! I get to be a mentor while learning a ton from web developers right out of college. One thing I have noticed is that they have a hard time saying no when I ask request something — as in, “Can this be done today?” or “Do you think this is a good idea?” I’ve made a career of being able to tell clients hard news, I really don’t mind!

I don’t want them to overwork themselves because of what they perceive I need done. Not to mention that a lot of the time, we really don’t have the budget for it! I know project estimates are the key to planning, but sometimes I need to be able to have a quick conversation about these things.

Prefacing everything with “it’s really okay if you can’t” feels patronizing. Is there any better way to let them know that not having time/budget to not do a thing is okay?

You can address it in the moment when it’s happening or you can address it with a bigger-picture conversation.

In the moment, try changing the way you’re framing these requests. For example, “Can this be done today?” sounds like you might be saying “I need you to do this today.” (Think of how your boss might say to you, “Can you call Cecil back?” She’s really telling you to call him, just being polite about it. Your coworkers might be hearing your requests in the same way.) So try being clearer about your wording. For example: “Ideally I’d like to get it back today, but if you have other stuff going on, it’s fine if it takes longer. What’s realistic on your side?”

You’re dealing with junior folks who need you to spell out assumptions that you’ve previously felt were obvious subtext.

Similarly, with your other example — “Do you think this is a good idea?” — you probably need to make it clearer that it’s a genuine question and you want their real opinion. For example: “I’m thinking about whether X is the right way to go, and I want to make sure I’m considering all the pros and cons. What do you think of it?”

The other option is to just talk to people one-on-one and say, “I want to make sure you know that when I ask if you’re able to do a project today or by a certain date, I’m genuinely asking. If you have higher priorities or think it will take longer or had planned to leave early that day, I want you to tell me that! I think you’ve been assuming I always want to hear yes, and I want you to know that’s not the case! You’re the expert on your own schedule and what else is on your plate, and I’m relying on you to tell me if the timeframe I suggest would be hard to pull off.”

Of course, keep in mind that people who aren’t skilled at reading professional nuance may end up applying this in contexts where they shouldn’t. There will probably be times where you are saying “this really needs to be done today” and they might not pick up on that. You can resolve that by being clear about that in the moment too, but be aware of that if you choose this approach.

As a general rule, though, the more explicit you can be about assignments and expectations, the better (with everyone, but especially with less experienced people).

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