The Trick to Saying No to Your Boss (Without Looking Lazy)

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In our weekly one-on-one a little over a year ago, my boss told me that, recently, she’d noticed I’d been saying “no” a lot when she asked me to do something.

I was embarrassed. I wanted to be known as a team player, not a naysayer.

But, as many of us are these days, I was really stressed. My plate already felt way too full, so additional requests caused me to panic. Each time, I could feel my chest tightening and the walls of my office closing in.

After hearing this feedback, though, I knew I needed to make adjustments. I agreed to a lot more, turned off my email notifications so I could control when I processed new requests, and waited until I wasn’t at peak stress levels to respond.

But—surprise!—This story isn’t about me becoming a “yes person.” It’s about me learning how to say “no” in a more productive and respectable manner.

You see, after several months of avoiding that two-letter word and trying to make things work, my supervisor forwarded me an email. A colleague of ours asked if we could assist in planning a program for his department, and she wanted to know what I thought.

I hesitated for a few minutes, and then I sent a well-thought-out response that went something like this:

I’m thinking no. Here’s why:

  • This is right after welcome week, an extremely busy time for our office. Plus, our event calendar is already rapidly filling up (woohoo!).
  • I’m avoiding daytime commitments because we may be moving our offices to a different building during that time, which could impact our capacity.
  • I’m not 100% sure how we’d contribute. I think we’d struggle to find overlap between what our office covers and what they need.

My manager was quick to respond, but this time it was good news. She felt the same way. In our next touch base a few days later, she expressed how much she appreciated my thoughtful answer. She said that, while she doesn’t mind when her direct reports have to say “no” sometimes, it’s really helpful to know why. (In other words, transparency is really important.)

Though I’m sure it’s a lesson I’ve heard before, this time it really sunk in. For months, I thought I had to take on every single little thing. But, in reality, “no” was always an OK thing to say.

And, I admit—I owe a lot of this revelation to the fact that my manager requested my opinion. It probably would’ve been harder to send that email if she’d said, “Please work with him to do this.”

But my point is, you can say “no” to your boss, too.

The trick is to provide some sort of justification. No, you don’t have to justify each and every one of your decisions—that’s an unnecessary waste of time and an insult to your integrity. But, “because I said so,” probably won’t make the cut.

So, next time your supervisor asks you to do something and you need to decline, tack a sentence or two onto the end of that. And, if appropriate, add on a suggested solution, too.

No, I can’t go to that meeting for you because I already have one scheduled with Nancy to review the budget. But, if you think I should prioritize your meeting, let me know!

or

No, I don’t think I can take the lead on that project because I’m not comfortable enough with that subject area yet. Is it possible for me to shadow someone else this time around so I feel more prepared to do so next time?

or

No, I’m not sure I want to attend that conference because I’m hesitant to take three days away from my workload, which feels really full right now.

Not only does providing a reason make you easier to work with, but it also gives your manager a little bit more insight into what you’re dealing with. If you admit that you can’t take on more work because you’re juggling too much right now, for instance, she may step in to help you pull back on some tasks in order to focus more on others. Or, if you tell her you aren’t comfortable with a certain topic, she may provide you with some training resources.

So, go ahead, get comfortable saying that dreaded two-letter word. Say it to yourself in the mirror, do some power poses—whatever makes you feel confident enough to take charge of your role.

If your boss reacts super negatively and starts screaming at you, puts you on a performance improvement plan, or stops giving you assignments, then that’s your clue to start looking for something new.

(But, if she tells you to read an article I wrote, the answer should always be a resounding, “Yes!”)

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