The benefits of saying yes to a new project are pretty obvious. It’s what a team player would say and it’s a way to demonstrate that you’re ready for new and exciting responsibilities.
And while there are many great articles on why you shouldn’t feel guilty about saying no, many people still do. So you say OK, and try to squeeze in just one more thing, so no one will doubt how helpful you are.
Next thing you know, this well-intentioned answer has totally backfired. You’re working longer hours, and because you can only do so much, you end up getting behind. Suddenly, you’re the person pushing back deadlines and struggling to get everything done.
But there’s no reason to feel “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” Because you can say no, without framing it as a lazy move. Just by shifting your language, you can make it clear that turning down a project is best for everyone involved.
Option 1: “Unfortunately, I Won’t Be Able to Give This My Full Attention Until [Date], Because I’m Currently Working on [Project]”
Typically, you might have said something like “I can’t, I’m slammed.” (Or maybe, “Ugh, fine,” followed by a week of all-nighters.) And neither of these options are going to make you look like you’re on top of things.
This line, however, keeps you from having to overcommit—and makes a positive impression. Instead of appearing overwhelmed by your work, this makes it look like you have such a strong command over your schedule that you can predict the exact date it’ll open up. (Quick note: If your manager is asking and these are projects she isn’t aware of, give her some context. Perhaps she didn’t realize how much is on your plate and can actually take some off.)
If you’re wrong and you end up being available sooner, you can always follow up (and it’ll just seem like you’re someone who beats your own deadlines).
Of course, there is always the chance that they’ll take you at your word and wait until the end of the month (or whenever you said) and ask again. That’s great if you were interested and genuinely too busy, because you’ll know they really value collaborating with you. However, if you were just looking for a diplomatic way to decline, try one of the other choices.
Option 2: “I’m Not Very Familiar With [Needed Skill], But Janet Is an Expert”
Clearly, you’re going to sound like a jerk if someone approaches you with a crummy task and you volunteer your colleague instead. But, now imagine if someone came to you with a cool project—that just doesn’t happen to be your strong suit.
Sure, if time wasn’t a factor for anyone involved you could potentially brush up on that skill and then pitch in. And there’ll be times when your boss gives you a project like that to help you grow. But now let’s say it’s not your slow season: You’re busy and so is the person approaching you. The truth is that they’ll get results faster by collaborating with your co-worker who knows this like the back of their hand.
On top of that, everyone appreciates being noticed for good work. So, when Michael approaches Janet and says, “I’d love your feedback on my client presentation if you have time this week. Michelle said you have a real knack for photo editing and could help me make it more visually appealing,” everyone will feel good.
Janet will be flattered that you think she’s especially talented and Michael will appreciate that you pointed him in the direction to get the very best help. Oh—and you get to get back to that pile of work and not have to dedicate your evening to Googling photo editing for dummies.
If you’re unsure if Janet will be flattered, you can always ask first or toss in a line that gives her an easy out. For example, “Janet’s great at this type of work, but I know she’s incredibly busy right now.”
Option 3: “[Resource] Always Helps Me With This”
Of course, maybe you are the go-to person for a certain thing, so referring it out to a colleague makes no sense. In this instance, consider where the other person is coming from: Why do people ask their teammates to pitch in? Because they need help.
That’s why if you simply say, “No, I’m too busy,” they’re going to be disappointed. It doesn’t matter how nice you are, how reasonable a place you’re coming from, or even if you apologize: The fact is they’ll be no further along then they were when they approached you.
So, what you want to do is remedy that. While you may not have time to sign onto a project, I’ll bet you can scrounge up a few minutes to send on a piece of advice, an idea, a prior project, or some resource that you think is helpful. Since they came to you, they value your opinion. And this way, you’re still replying to them and giving them something—without having to come onboard.
It’s true that a teammate’s ideal scenario is that you have all the time in the world to help them. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. However, you can turn them down in a way that still makes you seem competent and helpful. The trick is all in how you say it.