How to Turn Down Opportunities That Don’t Serve You (In a Way That Serves You)

The word “opportunity” implies something that shouldn’t be missed, but that isn’t always the case. Throughout your career, plenty of people will try to allure you with “opportunities” – some great, some not so great – and if you say yes to every single one of them, you have to ask yourself: am I really doing what is best for me?

For example…

A promotion is arguably a “great opportunity,” but if it will demand too much time or mental energy in lieu of other things that are high priority for you (family, creative pursuits, general wellbeing…), then there is no shame at all in taking the “pass.” It might even be the case that your responsibilities will shift, and therefore the “work” you are doing is liable to feel less fulfilling. This happens frequently when people jump up to manager, and find that their role has a lot more to do with people than deliverables.

When we subscribe to the “yes woman” attitude, we give up the pilot seat to our careers. But by defining a strong sense of what we want and need – from our personal and professional pursuits – and setting boundaries to remain true to those virtues, we are more easily able to achieve a sense of fulfillment and real success from our careers (not just the vision of success that is painted for us).

Still, that’s not to deny the existence of “naysayer stigma” in corporate. Setting boundaries and sticking to them is easier said than done, but with these three things in mind, you can approach the conversation with confidence.

  1. Advocate From a Place of Gratitude

One chief concern around saying “no” – especially to your manager or another trusted colleague – is that you will somehow be “letting them down” or disrespecting them by not taking (what they present to you as) a great opportunity. 

First of all: a sincere advocate for your career growth will trust that you have your reasons. At the root of any offer is a desire to see you succeed, and if you feel that your idea of success could somehow be compromised by going that route, that is something they will more than likely sympathize with.

Of course, listen to what they have to say and consider their advice before jumping to an answer. If they are a trusted advocate, they surely have their reasons just as well.

But at the end of the day, remember: the choice is yours, and if you choose to go a different direction (for whatever reason), express your gratitude for their consideration and move on.

EX: I’m grateful you would consider me for this – it is a great opportunity, and I understand what you are saying. However, it’s just not for me at this time; here’s why… 

2. Articulate Your Values

Before you consider what you don’t want, consider what you do. Your values and priorities should inform every career decision you make, and if you find yourself feeling hesitant, but lacking the justification for why, it might be time for a little self-reflection.

This circles back to defining your own idea of success. It doesn’t have to look like CEO-status, seven figures, and a book deal… It can be feeling creative, having hourly flexibility, helping others…[insert your ideals here].

Those things take precedence, and if an opportunity stands to threaten them – EX: leading that new project requires traveling once per month, but you are concerned about spending less time on community commitments – that is something worth considering.

If the opportunity feels totally out of left field, default to your personal brand. It might be the case that you need to invest some more time affirming your strengths and passions with your colleagues to create a clearer image of the kind of opportunities that would align well with your career goals.

By leading the conversation from the perspective of your growth and the things you already see ahead of you, you make it clear that it is not that you are not interested in advancing your career; you just want to advance in a different direction. 

3. Rule Out Fear

All that said, sometimes an opportunity is perfect for you, but it may not feel like you are “ready” or prepared to take it on. In this case, it might simply be fear that is holding you back.

If you’ve run through your priorities and aligned on your personal brand with your manager, but there is still a little voice in your head telling you to run the other way…bring those hesitancies into the discussion.

Our minds have a sneaky way of spiraling into fantasy “what ifs” when there is potential for big things on the table. Sometimes the mere act of vocalizing those anxieties (especially in the company of someone you trust) can help you think more realistically about your potential.

Bonus: when you bring these fears to your manager (or whomever extends the opportunity), you open the possibility of accommodating them and ultimately arriving at an opportunity that better suits your priorities.

For example: you might be concerned about extra administrative work distracting from your creative pursuits, but there could be room for negotiation to role-share or onboard an assistant to keep your responsibilities balanced.

However, it is important to note: this is a best case scenario. Not every opportunity has room for negotiation, and if after all is said and done, you still feel pressured or guilted into saying yes, consider that this person might not have your best interests in mind. It’s an unfortunate truth, but some managers are interested in advancing talent just because it makes them “look good” to push others up the ladder.

If you suspect this may be the case, stand your ground. Remember: what is most important is that you stay in the pilot seat of your career. Sacrificing that autonomy to appease someone who has selfish motives may only distract you from better opportunities that are liable to come along.