Executive Assistants: How to Master the Art of Saying 'No'

October 18, 2021


executive assistant on the phone

Executive assistant jobs are typically filled by problem-solvers who are determined, hardworking, and responsible professionals. Given that ‘assisting’ is part of the job title, it may be assumed that executive assistants can be very helpful individuals; however, the job is a balancing act between many priorities. The determination to succeed can become a curse for those who don’t set clear boundaries and learn to say ‘no’ when necessary. However, learning to say ‘no’ leads to increased proficiency, productivity, and respect for your time. 

Many executive assistants are prone to being overburdened. Their priorities are their executive’s priorities, and their mutual success requires strategic thinking. Knowing what projects to take on and which to push back on is a part of that strategy. 

Why Do We Say ‘Yes’?

No. Those two letters hold great power. When we were young, the word ‘no’ most likely came freely and often, but as we grew we became conditioned to saying ‘yes’ more often. Self-worth is inherently tied to our desire for approval by our peers. By agreeing to demands and pleasing people, you avoid conflict with that person—but what about with yourself? 

The desire to avoid social tension makes us feel inclined to say ‘yes’, especially to higher-ups whom it’s in our best interest to please, as well as co-workers who we know are easier to work with when we get along. Whatever the reason may be, by only saying ‘yes’ we end up saying ‘no’ to other things; our self-care, time with family, a more important project, a good night’s sleep. Learn to say ‘no’ and you’ll be able to say ‘yes’ to something far more valuable.

When and How to Say ‘No’

If you’re already drowning in work, your affinity for saying ‘yes’ might be the reason. The job of an executive assistant is a balancing act. You want to be helpful, but you don’t want people to take advantage of you. Assistants should know what’s involved in their job description, as well as which duties should be delegated to someone else on the team when their own workload is full. Likewise, while it’s part of the job to work weekends or an occasional late night, it’s important to acknowledge when these demands become excessive, as they risk leading to burnout and feeling overwhelmed by work-life. 

Take some time before answering a request to think it over. What will you be giving up if you say ‘yes’? Do you have some time available or are you already very busy with other tasks that take priority? 

Saying ‘no’ doesn’t need to be negative; rather, you can communicate with your peers in a tactful and courteous way. Push back in a sincere, gracious way and provide the asker context to your response. Consider starting out by thanking the other person for considering you for the project, then explain your current workload and the commitments on which you already have to focus. It’s important to be assertive so that you can prioritize your own needs without creating animosity.

Set Boundaries

Learning ways to say ‘no’ is just the beginning of putting your own needs first. Setting clear boundaries and sticking to them will provide you the framework for having a more structured schedule and knowing what is and isn’t too much. Whether you work from home or the office, when your workday ends it’s time to switch off work mode. If you’ve ever said you’d check your email quickly before shutting the computer down for the night and found yourself logging out a few hours later, you’ve successfully trespassed the boundary separating work and non-work time. 

Furthermore, if you are always available to your boss and coworkers by responding to their emails at all hours, you set expectations that you will always respond. Make sure to consider the cost of answering that email, and weigh whether or not it’s essential. If it does not need to be done, it’s okay to leave it until morning.  

Truthfully, not only executive assistants but everyone will end up saying ‘yes’ far more than ‘no’ because we desire to be seen as capable team players. Considering your schedule and making a plan for yourself will keep you from taking on more than you can handle. And, knowing when you need to say ‘no’ will ensure that you’re a more efficient, productive, healthy worker.

For more advice on excelling in an executive assistant role, check out this article on How to Communicate with Tact and Diplomacy. is here to help assistants achieve recognition and stay on top of workplace demands.

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