How to Say No to Your Boss

Career , Tips Jul 15, 2016 No Comments

By Codrin Arsene

When can you say no to your boss? And how to do it!

Here’s one thing employees are terrified to say: “boss, I can’t do that.” Well, you don’t need to use those exact words to get the same message across without getting a reputation for being a bad employee.

Let’s start with a simple statement: if you’re in a white-color job, most deadlines are self-imposed (by you, your boss, or someone else at the company). I often tell my team and my co-workers: we’re not performing an open heart surgery. We work in corporate America!!! Because most deadlines are arbitrary, it means they are open to negotiation (even if they don’t seem so at times).

However, learning how to say no is never an easy thing.

Trust me.

I know.

I used to work 80 hours a week accepting every single request because I felt I had something to prove.  I also thought my boss evaluated my work load accordingly and decided I can handle all the new work as well so I didn’t want to disappoint him.

I’ve since learned this is not sustainable and that there are better ways to avoid being overworked (one of them is actually telling your boss that you’re burned out!).

Of course, saying no to your boss is always situational. You don’t want to say no to your boss all the time.

You should also avoid saying no when you understand that your boss really needs you to complete a task which is being handed down through the chain of command.

So like with everything in life, saying no is a battle you need to know when you pick.

Below is a list of 4 situations when it is ok to say no to your boss. And if you learn how to do it well, your boss will very likely be reasonable and adjust the schedule accordingly.

1. You have too much work on your plate already when your boss is asking you to take on another project

Your boss sees you are one of the best performers on the team and as such he or she will entrust you will important tasks. But sometimes, you have simply too much on your plate.

First thing: don’t go to your boss and say: I can’t do it. That just makes you look like you’re a professional complainer.

Instead, if you feel you have more work than what you can handle, simply make a list of all outstanding tasks and present it to your boss.

Once you have your boss’ attention, ask him or her to prioritize the workload.

It’s that simple. By implementing this technique, you are not directly saying no to your boss. Instead, you’re asking him/her to make a decision on the list of deliverables based on their importance.

When you put your boss on the spot and ask him to determine the priorities you are both exposing the multitude of tasks currently on your plate and giving him an option to decide how to proceed. Only an incredibly unreasonable boss would hold this strategy against you.

2. You don’t agree with the solution your boss is proposing

It happens all the time. Your boss wants something done. And he or she is also telling you how he wants it done. It is in your best professional interest to clarify and distinguish between “what needs to be done” and “how it can be done”. 

Often times, your boss is simply trying to tell you to solve a problem the way they would solve it. It’s just a natural way people behave and think.

But it doesn’t mean you’re forced to do it that way.

Most people are willing to accept alternative approaches to solving a problem provided that the end result is the same as they expect it to be.

The best strategy is to explain your reasoning to your boss on why you want to tackle the issue at hand in a different way from how he/she is suggesting.

However, you must remember that for this approach to be effective, you need to make a case, in an objective and polite manner, and to give your reasoning on why you suggest doing things differently. At the end of the day, it is your boss’ call whether to accept your suggestion or not. 

3. You have a commitment and your boss is asking for something that will prevent you from honoring that commitment

This happens all the time. Your boss comes with an urgent last minute request 30 minutes before you’re planning on heading out the door. How do you say no to that?

First, you need to assess how important the request is to your boss. Is this something that really needs to be done immediately or is there any wiggle room to change the deadline?

Typically, the best thing to do is to inform your boss that you have another commitment that you must attend to and then to offer an alternative timeline.

On the one hand, you can ask whether it would be ok to work on the task the next day, first thing in the morning become you have somewhere you need to go to. That will show your boss you are treating the request with priority but that you won’t be able to complete the task until next day.

If your boss says no, it needs to be done right away you need to weigh in your options.

If it’s really urgent, and it must be done tonight, you can ask if you complete the task from home after your commitment is over. It’s not ideal, but it is certainly a viable option.

You can also propose to your boss that you’ll do your best to complete as much of the task as possible by end of day and that you will send your boss everything you complete before heading out.  You should also recommend that either your boss or someone else on the team can complete the work after that if the deadline is that urgent.

Whatever approach you may choose, try to offer alternatives that show clearly that you understand the urgency of the request and that you’re thinking various options to accommodate the request while still honoring your commitment.

4. Despite your best effort, you won’t be able to deliver what your boss is asking for

It happens. Either you promised to deliver a project on a specific timeline or your boss indirectly forced you to commit to it. Whatever the reason, you won’t be able to deliver a task on time and you know it. The question here is how do you tell your boss that he or she won’t get what they expected, at least not on the originally proposed & committed timeline.

The rule is very simple: as soon as you think there is a risk to the schedule – call it out. Many people try their best to avoid having this conversation and they work over time or try till the very last moment to make it happen. And they only inform their supervisor when it’s a done deal and they absolutely cannot complete the task.

Don’t do that. 

People don’t like surprises.

The best strategy is to call out a risk as soon as you can identify it. That way your boss won’t be taken aback if the schedule slips and they can also inform their boss or other interested stakeholders well in advance if there is an issue.

And if the risk wasn’t real and you are able to complete the task on time – awesome. Your boss will be very impressed and happy with the result.

“Under promise and over deliver” may sound cynical but it truly is one of the best strategies for success.

At the end of the day, saying no to your boss is not the end of the world. We are people working with other people and, with few exceptions, we’re dealing with reasonable folks. Saying no is simply part of everyday work life. You don’t have to be afraid of doing it. You just need to know when and how to deliver the message. As you can see from these scenarios, saying no is quite easy if you know how to do it right. 


Also published on Medium.

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