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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Tell Your Boss "No"—Without Saying "No"


Your boss asks you to take on a new project, and your first thought is: “There is just no way.” Maybe it’s because you’re already juggling three projects near deadline, or maybe you fundamentally disagree with his strategy.

Sure, you could try to just power through all of the projects or propose something you think a client wouldn’t be interested in, but you probably know that’s neither the best nor the most professional option.

Pushing back on a request from your boss can be intimidating (especially if you work for someone who’s, let’s say, not the most receptive to answers outside the realm of “Of course! When would you like it completed?”), but the truth is, it’s significantly better than setting yourself up to fail.

The trick is to push back more diplomatically—getting your point across without actually using the word “no.” Read on for how to approach some common situations, as well as one time you should probably just say ”yes.”

Situation: You Truly Don’t Have the Time

Instead of: “There’s No Way I Have Time for That”

Try: “Could You Help Me Prioritize My Project List?”

While, “No, I don’t have time,” seems like a perfectly legit response when you’re up to your elbows in other work, it can also make your boss question your ability to capably prioritize and execute the tasks that are on your plate.

So, this is the time to remember, “Show, don’t tell.” Respond to your boss by saying, “Could you help me prioritize my project list?” In that meeting, lay out what you’re working on, how long it’s taking, and what you would have to delay or stop doing in order to take on the new task.

The best thing about this approach is that, along with demonstrating everything on your plate, you’re giving your boss the opportunity to weigh in on what’s most important. That way, if the new project can be passed off or held for later, it likely will be, and if it needs your attention now, you have full permission to de-prioritize something else.

Situation: You Disagree With the Strategy at Hand

Instead of: “I Don’t Think That’ll Work”

Say: “Can I Throw Out Another Idea?”

Even if you’re thinking, “No, I would never take that approach with this client—how could you even consider that?” remember that the abrasive approach is not terribly conducive to brainstorming new ideas.

Instead, try, “Can I throw out another idea?” One of two things happens when you ask a question like that—clearly, your boss says “yes” or “no.” But here’s the amazing part: If your boss says “yes” (which happens more often than not) she has welcomed you to contribute a new approach before you even start in, which means she’s much more likely to consider it.

If she says “No—this is the way we’re doing it,” you know she’s serious about the proposed strategy, despite your reservations. (At this point, you have to ask yourself if you’re comfortable assuming she has some additional context or end game or—only on the most important occasions—jump to, “I hear this is not the time for new ideas, but I have a serious concern, namely...”)

Situation: You Just Don’t Want To

Instead of: “Ugh, No”

Say: “Sure” (Usually)

Someone has to arrive mega-early for an upcoming event. Someone needs to work late the night before. Someone needs to drop what he or she is doing and run to Kinko’s. Whether you’re on a small staff or facing a busy time of year, there are times when your boss asks you to do a bit extra, and part of you just wants to say, “Isn’t there someone else who could do it?”

Fact is, though, no one will consider you a team player if you disappear when it’s time to pitch in, and you don’t want to be known as the employee who thinks he’s above it. So, in general, it’s important to say “yes” when completing a nuisance task will be little more than, well, a nuisance.

That said, you can still say “no” if the task will distract you from your other projects (see situation 1) or if you are disproportionately the one asked and feel as though you’re being taken advantage of.

If that’s the case, in lieu of “no,” remind your boss how frequently you’ve been given odd jobs lately and include how you could better use that time. For example, “Perhaps someone else could take the early shift this event—I’ve prepped the room for the last two, and would love to take that time tomorrow to...”

By speaking clearly—but without the letters n and o—you’re finding a way to get your point across without making your boss get defensive. That way, you keep the focus where it should be (that everyone wants the best results) and won’t get caught up in who decides how things are done.