When you have a lot on your plate and a manager or peer asks you to do more work, it can be challenging to figure out how to decline or defer the request, especially if you’re worried about facing potential fallout. If you agree to take on the extra work because you feel intimidated, but you can’t realistically manage it on top of your current tasks, you could end up in the even more challenging position of having to explain why you failed to deliver on your promises.
So, what can you say to gently but firmly push back on requests from managers or peers in a way that will allow you to manage your time without worrying about potential consequences? Below, 16 members of Forbes Coaches Council weigh in with expert advice on how to diplomatically take control of your workload when you know you can’t handle additional responsibilities.
1. Agree More Slowly And Ask For Time To Evaluate
Agree more slowly and ask for time to evaluate a request, and then do it. There is a chance you aren’t seeing the bigger picture, or that you are simply biased. Yet, if after your analysis you’re clear that you can’t agree to taking it on, say, “If I said yes, I would do the whole project/team a disservice because I have too little time to dedicate to it.” Offer options that require either changing your priorities or engaging another party. – Inga Bielińska, Inga Arianna Bielinska Coaching Consulting Mentoring
2. Discuss The Issue Privately And Transparently
Discuss the issue with them privately and transparently before you reach this limit. Explain to your manager or peer that these additional requests would prevent you from being effective on your main mission. Having a clear discussion is always the best way to let the other person know your limits. It is better to define yourself than to defend yourself. If you don’t set a clear framework, it will be crossed. – Xavier Preterit, BIMR EDITION
3. Think Of It As A Negotiation
Be hard on the problem, not the person. The goal should be to create the most impact. Work with your manager(s) on a win-win solution that will benefit the organization the most. When they know that you are interested in working with them to better the organization they will respond more favorably. Managers respond negatively when they hear excuses instead of solutions. – Brad Federman, PerformancePoint LLC
4. Discuss Current Priorities To Find A Solution
Prioritization is key. Rather than saying “yes” because you don’t want to disappoint your boss or peers, think about the consequences of saying “yes.” Instead, openly discuss your current priorities to determine if this new request actually warrants taking precedence and collaborate on a solution. Establishing this boundary and not overpromising will actually garner more respect from those around you. – Kimberly Svoboda, Aspiration Catalyst
5. Communicate Your Focus On Benefiting The Team
I would suggest addressing it in a way that communicates your focus on benefiting the team. It may sound something like, “While I could do that task, in order to best accommodate the needs of the team, that may be better assigned to someone else.” – John Lowe, Ty Boyd, Inc.
6. Protect Personal Boundaries With Honesty
Advocating to protect your personal boundaries is essential to doing your best work. Once you assess how critical the request is, you have two choices: If the request is key to your role, ask your manager to help you prioritize. What comes off your plate? Otherwise, a reply such as, “I have too much on my plate and if I add this task, all of my work will suffer,” is honest, direct and not emotional. – Deborah Goldstein, DRIVEN Professionals
7. Enlist The Help Of Junior Colleagues
Feeling overloaded with work requests from managers is a problem but, on the plus side, it shows you’re someone they trust to get things done. Take the opportunity to add more value by enlisting the help of more junior colleagues. If you don’t have any, make a case for getting some, or ask which of your colleagues can be enlisted to help. Don’t assume there are boundaries; assume there are none. – Steve McIntosh, CareerPoint.com
8. Phrase Your Boundary In A Positive Manner
It’s about the locus of control being with you, and that’s where boundary setting becomes important. Language, both verbal and nonverbal, is vital for a productive outcome. Phrase your boundary statements in a positive manner that makes managers and peers think carefully about the tradeoff between their new request and your existing tasks underway, given the time you have available. Be the project manager of your own time. – Arthi Rabikrisson, Prerna Advisory
9. Offer An Alternative Path To What They Desire
Offer an alternative path, if possible. Your “no” is really a “yes” to what they truly desire, it’s just showing up differently than they may have envisioned. When they see that your “no” comes out of a space of integrity with their interests at heart, they will respect your professionalism. When you say “yes” in the future, they know you will deliver. – April Armstrong, AHA Insight
10. Ask For Help With Time Management
Bring them your schedule and ask for help with time management. If you share the challenges you face in getting things done by showing them your calendar, then they can see where you are spending your time. That may help them see what you are up against and what you need to do to be more efficient or lighten the load. I find that many people are afraid of sharing their calendar. Don’t hide it from those who can help. – John M. O’Connor, Career Pro Inc.
11. Present Options And Allow Them To Choose
In this situation, I suggest presenting options to your managers or peers. We only have so many hours in the day, and everyone feels that their request is a priority. The next time you are in this situation, present two options and allow them to choose: “I can work on option A or option B, which one takes priority?” This will place the control back with them and create clarity around which tasks take priority. – Bryan Powell, Executive Coaching Space
12. Know Exactly What Is Needed And By When
Make sure you know exactly what is needed and by when. Then, share your list of projects with your thoughts on what the priorities are. Finally, share where you believe the new request falls within that list of priorities. This helps the person requesting your help to understand what you’re navigating while also presenting you as a leader. It’ll become clear to both of you what’s possible and the best solution. – Rosie Guagliardo, InnerBrilliance Coaching
13. Provide Information To Validate Your Response
Rather than allow the mind to reel and conjecture, provide information to support a valid response. Employees must engage in open and honest dialogue, providing information people need to know to optimize talent within the team to achieve collective results. This gives managers and peers the ability to accept the situation, analyze the situation and make a better decision to realize results. – Lori Harris, Harris Whitesell Consulting
14. Resist Letting Your Ego Overcommit
Overcommitting and saying “yes” to everything is the ego’s tactic. It makes us feel important, and we don’t want to disappoint. Unfortunately, the consequences often lead to burnout, frustration, mediocre results or feeling unappreciated. To set boundaries, be transparent. Listen to the request, ask when it’s due, and try to accommodate or share your concerns. Help find a solution if you’re unable to help. – Christie Garcia, Mindful Choice, LLC.
15. Push The Need To Find A Solution Back Onto The Requester
You can say, “I have these items that have to be done first. If you feel your request takes priority, please consult with my manager.” This pushes the need to find a solution back onto the requester. Responsibility for the project is not yours until you take it on, which frees you from doing the additional work until it is known how it will fit into your schedule and whether it needs to be prioritized over other work. – Lori Kuhn, Thrive – a human development company
16. Be Clear Up Front About What You Can Handle
Be clear enough up front about what you can handle and what your bandwidth is. Saying “yes” to everything doesn’t do anyone any favors if you can’t deliver quality work in a timely manner. It’s also important to set and maintain personal and professional boundaries, and if you have leaders who lean on you too much, you need to recalibrate and reassert those expectations. – Jonathan H. Westover, Utah Valley University & Human Capital Innovations, LLC