Saying “no” for a more effective “yes” in the workplace

By Elisabeth Goodman, 9th October 2020

Bruce Tulgan’s article in the September-October issue of Harvard Business Review is a must read for all of us who find ourselves with too much to do and too little time to do it.

I’ve been quoting a version of Graham Allcott’s central message in “The Productivity Ninja” to my RiverRhee management and assertiveness course delegates and coaching clients for a while now.

There will never be enough time for everything that we need or want to do, so what matters is finding ways to use our time that we are happy about.

Tulgan’s well researched article gives us an additional way to do this and, in so doing, to improve both our wellbeing and our professional success.

Illustration by Elisabeth Goodman based on based on Bruce Tulgan’s article in Sept-Oct 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review

A well defined “ask” – agreeing a mini-proposal

Getting clarity on what the other person is asking of you: the what, why, by when etc. will help you to make a better assessment of whether and how you might be able to meet their request in the context of all your other priorities.

Incidentally it will also help the other person better understand what they are asking of you and whether that was their intention. It also potentially puts the conversation between you on a more professional level – one of mutual respect.

A well considered “no”

Having clarity on the desired outcome paves the way for both of you to assess whether it is indeed appropriate for you to do this task: does it align with your role and responsibilities and any other internal procedures and expectations and, if it does where does it sit in terms of your other priorities.

If the answer is “no” or “not now”, this prior reflection might make it easier for you to say “no” in a way that shows you would still like to find a way to support the other person at some point in the future when it is possible to say “yes”.

An effective “yes”

Saying “no” to things that don’t fit your remit or availability gives you more scope to say “yes” to those things that do.

You can also agree a plan of action that supports the original ‘mini-proposal’.

The outcome of this discerning approach, as Tulgan shows in his case study, is that you will build your professional reputation and the quality of your interactions with others, as well as your own well-being.

You will also have the additional positive reinforcement that you are investing your time and energy on the right things.

What’s not to like about this approach?



Allcott, G. (2014).  How to Be a Productivity Ninja.  Icon Books Ltd, London.

Tulgan, B. (2020). Lean When to Say No and How to Say Yes.  Harvard Business Review, 135-139

About the author

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting, a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through courses, workshops and coaching, and with a focus on the Life Sciences. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.

She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to achieve authenticity and autonomy in the workplace by enhancing their management, interpersonal and communication skills, and their ability to deal with uncertainty and change.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG.

Elisabeth is also a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and is working towards her PG Certification in Business and Personal Coaching with Barefoot Coaching and the University of Chester.

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