Today we’re learning a special word. A magical word. You’ve heard your “Abracadabras!” and “Wingardium Leviosas!”, but you won’t find any of them quite as useful as this simple two-letter, one-syllable phrase, even if you have been pursued from birth by an evil wizard with no nose. Everyone say it together, now…


It’s one of the first words we learn, no matter what language you grew up speaking. But if you were raised in a typical Asian household like me, you didn’t get to use it a whole lot, not at least without getting your ass kicked a good number of times for saying it.

But you’re a grown-ass adult now. And that means you get to do what you want, because the consequences are now solely yours to bear.

If you recall my tips on avoiding career suicide, one of the key things you need to learn in order to avoid disappointments in the way of unfulfilled expectations, is the art of deploying the strategic ‘NO’.

The question is – When is it appropriate to say NO? And just as important – How do you say it?

ONE: When it’s Completely Redundant

Don’t get me wrong – We all have a part to play in our companies or offices to ensure that its operations roll along smoothly, doubly so if you’ve chosen to work with a start-up. You also may have heard the timeless advice of “If you have nothing to do, grab a broom.” (pardon my Potter references, I just watched the entire series.)

The scenario which I’m getting at is when you already have four projects demanding your direct involvement, and you’re asked to join ‘Brainstorming Meeting #24601’ that is already fully represented by the teams involved; or to ‘assist’ another employee who is presently pressed down with the monumental task of catching Pokemon in the office car park.

This is redundant, which in corporate-speak means ‘wholly unnecessary’. As your responsibilities grow in your workplace, you will want to be where you’re most efficient; and sometimes you just have much better places to be. This is when you will have to state, politely and succinctly, that you are required elsewhere.

How to say NO: “I’m afraid I must decline, because my time is needed on these other things I’m working on.”

Caveat: ‘In the pantry, taking a break’ is NOT covered under the list of ‘better places to be’.

TWO: When It’s A Dead End

There will be times when you’re asked to work on a project that is, while well-meaning, simply doomed from the beginning. The market research was flawed from the beginning, the timeline is a mess, the supply lines are nonexistent. It’s an idea that no one wants to admit is a bad one.

Remember that time is money, and you don’t want to waste it going around in circles. Saying yes to one thing now might mean saying no to something else that comes along later. So if you know you’re not going to get anywhere with a project, it might be best to let it go (and steer clear from it if you have to).

How to say NO: “Thank you for the thought, and I’m going to pass on this one. Do keep me in the loop if there are any developments.”

Caveat: Not every idea you disagree with is a completely bad idea. Give every opportunity a matured, thorough thought; especially if you do have time on your hand to give it a glance – maybe it ain’t a dead end after all.

THREE: When It’s Illegal (Duh)

You laugh, but the Milgram Experiment has shown us that more than half of us would do very illegal things if we were ordered to, even if we would feel very uncomfortable doing them.

Outside of common sense, a basic understanding of what is legal and what is not within your industry comes handy here. If you have ever sat through an ethics class back in college wondering, “What’s the use of all these redundant information?” this is what it’s useful for, especially when many, many money is involved.

Case in point: At the turn of the millennium, Enron executives thought that it was a good idea to get creative with their accounts. Yes it wasn’t a good idea. Also in another separate case, upon finding out that their milk formula has been contaminated with melamine, Fonterra’s Sanlu administrators instructed the media to suppress negative press about their products… And boy, that did not end well at all.

Bad things happen when good (or at least morally neutral) people do nothing to stop them from happening. While it may be difficult to refuse direct orders, remember that you can always find a new job. A tarnished reputation on the other hand, isn’t quite as easily salvaged.

How to say NO: “I’m sorry, and I won’t do that because I believe that’s illegal.”

Caveat: Your understanding of the law may be murky. Be sure before you accuse someone of breaking the law.



To quote the wise words of Coldplay – ‘nobody said it was easy’. For those of us who were brought up to be ‘yes men and women’, a firm ‘NO’ might be the hardest and most important single word you’ll ever have to utter.

It is necessary all the same, whether for the sake of your career, or your soul. And as always, I hope that you will ‘git gud’.



Posted by Joseph Ng