As an employee, you want your boss to think of you as a person they can count on to get things done. But no matter how efficient, productive, disciplined, and committed to your job you are, there’s going to come a time when you either don’t have the capacity or the desire to tackle something your boss throws at you — and when that happens, you’re going to need to say no.
Unfortunately, even though there are situations where it’s completely warranted and necessary, that two-letter word can prove challenging for a lot of people, especially when you have to direct it at your boss.
“Saying no can be difficult because people often interpret it negatively,” said Toronto-based change management consultant and business strategist Anthony Babbitt. “Often, employees do not want to appear disrespectful, and some bosses take ‘no’ as a direct attack on their authority.
So how do you get more comfortable saying no to your boss, and furthermore saying it in a way that preserves the relationship and your standing at the office? Here are five strategies to follow to help you say no with confidence, and set the boundaries you need to best accomplish your work.
1. Reconsider what saying no means.
The first step to getting better at saying no to your boss is shifting your beliefs about what saying no means about you and your work ethic. Again, most people want their bosses to see them as dependable, productive, and capable, and they think that saying yes to every task or request directed at them is the only way to achieve this.
But being a “yes person” — and saying yes when you actually want or need to say no — is a recipe for disaster. If you keep saying yes to your boss, they’re going to assume you’ve got a handle on everything and are going to keep putting more on your plate. And the more you have on your plate, the more likely you are to make a mistake, not finish a project, or let things fall through the cracks.
By saying yes to things even when you don’t have the capacity to handle them, there’s a high probability that your performance is going to suffer, and as a result you’ll wind up being less dependable, less productive, and less capable — the exact opposite of what you were striving for.
That’s why it’s important to change your relationship to the word “no.” When you say no to a task or request (in an appropriate way), it shows that you know how to set boundaries and effectively manage your time, energy, and resources, a characteristic your boss will respect and appreciate.
“Contrary to employees’ belief that their boss will like or value them more if they say yes to every request, the best bosses appreciate an employee who sets healthy boundaries and says no when the situation calls for it,” said Paul French, Director at executive search firm Intrinsic Search.
2. Give a reason and a solution.
When your boss asks you to do something, they’re asking for a reason. So if and when you have to say no, it can be helpful to let them know why, and more importantly, offer them an alternative solution to accomplish the task, advised career coach Kyle Elliot.
For example, let’s say your boss asks you to take on a new client project, but you’re already managing a large project and don’t have the capacity to take on a new client.
In that situation, “clearly articulate why you cannot take on the project,” said Elliot. “Also, attempt to identify a replacement.”
You might say something like, “I would love to take on X client, but I’m already spearheading the big Q4 project for Y client, and I’m going to need to dedicate all my time and energy to that project to make sure we really hit it out of the park. What about passing X client to Jane? She did an amazing job with Z client and I think she’d be the perfect person to lead this project.”
When you share your reasoning with your boss, it gives them insight into why you’re saying no, which can help soften the blow. And by offering them an alternative solution, you’re going the extra mile to help them solve the problem and ensure that what they need done gets done, which is what they’re really after to begin with.
3. ...unless you don’t want to.
Giving your boss an explanation for why you need to say no can often be helpful. But in many situations, explaining yourself when you say no is neither appropriate nor required. If you find yourself in one of those situations, you absolutely don’t have to justify saying no.
Let’s say your boss asks you to work late, but you have plans after work. It’s fine to say, “I’m not able to work late tonight,” and leave it at that; you’re not obligated to tell your boss what your plans are or why you can’t work after your scheduled work hours.
Or say that your boss asks you to do something you feel uncomfortable with. A firm “no” is all you need to say; there’s no need to go into why you don’t feel comfortable or the reasons you don’t want to manage the task.
The bottom line is, you don’t need to explain or justify every “no,” and if your boss puts pressure on you to do so, bring it up with HR.
“There are many workplace laws that prohibit disclosures of certain information, so if a boss still presses [after you say no], you can simply say, ‘I am not comfortable sharing that information with you,’” advised Babbitt. “Anything beyond this should warrant a visit to Human Resources.”
4. Loop your boss in on your workload.
Your boss isn’t a mind reader; usually, they’re not fully aware of your schedule, your to-do lists, and all the tasks you’re managing at once. So if your boss asks you to do something that will put you over capacity, loop them in on your current workload and have them help you figure out which tasks take priority.
For instance, say your boss asks you to draft a memo by the end of the day, but you already have another deadline you need to wrap up by EOD. In that situation, you might say, “I can definitely tackle this for you, but I’ve been working on X task, which is also due by the end of the day. Which task do you want me to prioritize? Let me know and I’ll put the other task on my to-do list to tackle first thing tomorrow.”
By looping in your boss on your current workload, you put the ball in their court, allowing them to determine which tasks require your immediate attention and which ones warrant a “no,” at least for the time being.
“Throwing the ball back to your boss makes them aware of your pending tasks and time limits, and gives them the final say on what they need to be done first,” noted French.
5. Use open-ended questions to say no without actually saying no.
There’s no denying that the word “no” has negative connotations. If you want to avoid those negative associations altogether, you can use open-ended questions to say no to your boss — without ever actually saying the word.
Imagine that your boss asks you to work on a branding project, but the direction in which they want to take the project is directly misaligned with all the prior brand work you’ve done for the company. Instead of delivering a solid no, “if you disagree with the direction your boss is taking…[try responding] with open-ended, non-leading questions [like], ‘What’s the business outcome you’re looking for here? How do you see my doing X result in the outcome you’re looking for? What other options have you explored?’” advised Tyler Parris, executive coach and author of Chief of Staff: The Strategic Partner Who Will Revolutionize Your Organization.
By asking questions and opening up a discussion, you can help your boss figure out the “no” on their own, without ever having to say the word yourself.
“By giving them the space to explore what they really need to explore, you’re adding value to them, [and] getting the result you wanted [without having to actually use the word ‘no’],” said Parris.
Saying no can be uncomfortable — and it can be especially uncomfortable when that word is directed at your boss. But with these strategies, you can say no in a way that preserves your reputation as a dependable, capable go-getter, while setting healthy boundaries that protect your time and energy. Getting comfortable with the word “no” and using it judiciously will help prevent burnout and keep you energized, enthused, and at the top of your game, which will ultimately benefit you, your boss, and your company.