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Don’t quit! Learn how to say no instead

Published 17 January 2022 in Audio articles • 6 min read • Audio availableAudio available

All day, every day, most of us are bombarded by requests at work. Sometimes these can pile up leaving us feeling overwhelmed. Learning the right way to turn some down can help us stay in our jobs, as happier and more productive employees. 


The New Normal has become the Great Resignation. A record 4.4 million Americans quit their job in September 2021 alone and 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their job, creating even more work for those who stay behind. One reason employees hand in their notice is because they are overwhelmed by requests to do more, while juggling working from home with constantly changing childcare and other responsibilities. After saying yes to too many requests, they can no longer cope and quit.

But there is another option: you can learn to say no when you realize that not agreeing to a request can be the best negotiation outcome for you (Schweinsberg et al, 2022). Saying no at the right moment and in the right way can help you stay happy, productive, and calm in these turbulent times. 

But what is the best way to go about declining some requests? Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment on obedience to authority offers some clues. In the early 1960s, the Yale University psychologist tested whether people would say no to requests they did not want to follow by instructing study participants to administer electric shocks to a “learner” (who was in reality a hired actor). These fake electric shocks gradually increased to fatal levels unless the participant declined to follow the instructions. Although no participant wanted to administer lethal shocks, 65% of them did, presumably killing their learner counterpart. However, only 22% theoretically killed their counterpart when they received their instructions over the phone from an experimenter who had moved to another room (Milgram, 1965, 1974). 

When workers can neither see nor hear the other person, for example via text-only communication such as email or chat, they feel the least psychological pressure

Participants felt more able to say no when receiving their instructions over the phone because they felt less psychological pressure. When communicating face-to-face, participants can see and hear the other person, and communication is rich (Swaab et al., 2011), and people therefore feel more psychological pressure to comply with requests. When workers can only hear the request, for example via a phone call, there is less psychological pressure to comply. And when workers can neither see nor hear the other person, for example via text-only communication such as email or chat, they feel the least psychological pressure.  

Just like Milgram’s participants, we often don’t say “no” even though we want to. But unlike Milgram’s participants, we can choose strategically whether we communicate face-to-face, via the phone, or via email. Milgram’s study teaches us this: when you make a request, ask in person, as this makes it harder for the other party to say no (65% of participants failed to say no, although they wanted to). When someone asks you, create physical distance from your partner when you respond (only 22% of Milgram’s participants complied when instructed from another room).  

How to say ‘no

The next time a request comes in, help yourself say no by following these three steps: 

1 When approached by a colleague, talk and listen to learn, but do not say yes immediately. Try to find out what your counterpart wants, and why they want it. Once you understand this, tell them that you will think about it and that you will get back to them.  

2 Think away from them. Create physical distance between yourself and your counterpart to reduce the psychological pressure you feel to say yes. Now decide: is it worth saying yes to this request, or should you say no? What other project, person, or commitment do you have to say no to if you say yes to this new request?  

3 Write an email to say no. Be clear about what you are saying no to and consider whether you might still be able to help your counterpart in other ways (by suggesting someone else for whom this could be an opportunity, or by sharing a link or an idea that could help them reach their objectives)? 

The New Normal provides unprecedented opportunities, but you have to learn to manage the many requests that come your way. The next time you’re asked to do something, remember to talk to the person delivering the request in order to learn, then move away from them to decide, and finally say no to them in writing.

Find out more…

Beardsley, E. (2010) Fake TV Game Show ‘Tortures’ Man, Shocks France. NPR. A report on a French TV show which replicated Milgram’s findings in the 2010s. 

Bohns, V. K. (2021) You Have More Influence than you Think: How we underestimate our power of persuasion and why it matters (First edition. ed. W.W. Norton & Company). An excellent book by one of the best professors in the field: Vannessa Bohn’s groundbreaking research shows that we have much more influence than we think. 

Judge, P. (2021) This is Criminal [Audio Podcast] The experiment requires that you continue. A thought-provoking podcast on the Milgram experiment.

Malcolm, L. (2012) All in the mind Behind the Shock Machine [Audio podcast]. An award-winning podcast episode with Gina Perry, the author of the book, Behind the shock machine.

Perry, G. (2012) Behind the shock machine: The untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments (Scribe Publications). A behind the scenes book, telling the story of the Milgram experiment. 


Picture: Emiel Van Betsbrugge on Unsplash

Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76.  

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority; an experimental view (1st ed.). Harper & Row.  

Swaab, R. I., Galinsky, A. D., Medvec, V., & Diermeier, D. (2011). The communication orientation model: Explaining the diverse effects of sight, sound, and synchronicity on negotiation and group decision-making outcomes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 16(1), 25-53. 


Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(5), 955-978.A literature review of what we know about obedience to authority, based on both the Milgram studies and other related work. 

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? American Psychologist, 64(1), 1-11. Burger replicated Milgram’s experiment in the 2000s, with remarkably similar results.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378. Milgram’s original academic paper.

Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76. A follow-up paper in which Milgram tried to rule out a number of explanations for the results he observed. 

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority; an experimental view (1st ed.). Harper & Row. Stanley Milgram wrote this book in 1974, almost ten years after the first original paper came out. It includes additional information about the experimental setup, quotes from participants and other information that can help you to better understand the background of the study. 


Martin Schweinsberg

Assistant professor at ESMT Berlin

Dr Martin Schweinsberg studies when and why negotiations end without an agreement and is also interested in analyst analytics and studies the psychology of data analysis. Martin’s research has been published in top journals in psychology and management and he has been recognized as one of the 40 Best Business School Professors under 40.


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