How To Say 'No' When A Colleague Tries To Take Advantage Of You
This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ
Most of us want to get along with our coworkers. We want to be helpful, collegial, and friendly. And most of us don’t want the reputation of being the jerk that’s never willing to help out.
But there are people who will try to take advantage of our good nature and ask us to carry their workload, bend the rules, reveal confidential information, and more. So how do you tell these folks ‘No’ in a way that protects you and your collegial reputation?
Let’s imagine that you’re a manager and your company has just given out bonuses. Each manager received the bonus numbers for their specific employees and everyone was told explicitly not to share the numbers with other managers. So, of course, the manager down the hall catches you later and says “I think my employees got shortchanged on the annual bonus. What did your employees get?”
Assuming that we don’t break the rules and give out the numbers, we could give our peer a lecture on following the rules, or yell at them for putting us in an awkward position, or tell them how they’re making us feel violated. But each of these options can cause more problems than they solve. There are much simpler ways to handle this situation.
Preempt the situation
If you know that the manager down the hall (or whomever) regularly asks you to divulge confidential information (or bend the rules, etc.) try and preempt it from happening again. Before that person even gets a chance to ask you for your bonus numbers, say something to them like “It sure was smart of HR to order us not to share the bonus figures. It eliminates so many problems that way.”
There’s no need to explicitly acknowledge that you’re doing this because the other person has a tendency to put you in these awkward situations. You’re just shutting it down before it has a chance to happen.
If you’re not able to preempt the situation, here’s a simple four-step process to saying ‘No’ assertively.
Four steps to saying ‘No’ assertively
Step 1: Use empathy to protect your reputation. Alleviate any concerns you have about gaining a ‘standoffish’ reputation by acknowledging the importance the other person attributes to their request. This simple show of empathy is as easy as saying “I hear this request is important to you” or “It’s apparent this means a lot to you.”
Step 2: Use the word ‘No’. It may seem obvious, but the word ‘No’ really does need to be said in these situations. Don’t equivocate by saying something that softens the ‘No’ such as “Well, I just don’t think so.” That just keeps the door open. Additionally, don’t give a long-winded reason for your decision to decline; that’s just ammunition for the other person to convince you to say yes. Limit the rationale behind your ‘No’ to a single, short sentence.
Step 3: Don’t apologize for saying ‘No’. People that take advantage of others often prey upon those that they see as being weaker (and also sensitive, passive, or nervous). Offering an apology when you say ‘No’ is too often interpreted as a signal of defeat, or of weakness, and it can actually encourage a taker to push even harder. Not to mention, you haven’t done anything wrong; there’s no reason to apologize.
This point is especially important for women. There is clear research that women apologize more than men, and it seems to stem from a tendency to perceive more things as transgressions worthy of an apology. So let me be clear here: saying ‘No’ to someone who’s taking advantage of you, or asking you to break the rules, is not a transgression. It’s the right thing to do.
Step 4: Own your decision. Using the words “I won’t” or “I’ve decided not to”, rather than “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t” emphasizes that you’ve made a clear and final decision. Owning your decision is a sign of strength (plus it inoculates against potential future attempts to take advantage of you).
So how does all this sound when you follow these four steps? Going back to our bonus numbers example above, it sounds something like this:
“It’s apparent that you really want these numbers, Bob. However, my answer is no. We were both explicitly told not to share these numbers and I’m going to abide by that. I won’t distribute the numbers.”
A response like this is neither passive nor aggressive; it’s appropriately assertive.
Finally, and I know this sounds a little hokey, but effectively saying ‘No’ can require some practice. Lots of folks unknowingly give conflicting non-verbal signals when they’re saying ‘No’. For example, they may shake their head affirmatively, or look away, or cover their mouth, or even tremble a little. Practice with another person, in front of a mirror or even by videotaping yourself and look for any signals that may undercut the power of your ‘No.’