Saying no to your boss is never easy. Whether you're being asked to take on more work, take on a task you don't believe to be a good idea, run personal errands, do work that isn’t your skillset, support an ill-informed strategy or even work you consider inappropriate, it's difficult to know the correct way to decline politely. You don't want to be labelled 'difficult to work with' or 'not a team player', but saying no, within reason, can also help your career and your employer. Especially if saying yes, could compromise you or your boss.
By saying yes, you may find yourself over-stretched on projects, taking on an overwhelming burden of responsibility and potentially feeling burnt out and resentful. You may find yourself holding back on presenting alternative solutions or ways of doing things - or worse still, ethically compromised.
Here we share five tips for saying no to your boss.
1. First seek to understand
You want to ensure you keep a good relationship between you and your boss, so it's important to try and understand the reason for the request. Perhaps after you understand their rationale, it may actually make sense to support their decisions and undertake whatever tasks or action they require.
If you have heard their reasons and are still unable to meet their demands, then try and be empathetic and compassionate. If they know they've been heard and that you do care, they may be less likely to feel defensive and start directing any anger or disappointment your way.
Let them know that you understand that by saying no, the task/request will be put back in their hands. While they may not be happy it is likely they will be more tolerant and leave the conversation respecting you.
If the reason you are saying no is due to time constraints and you may actually be able to offer help in the future, there's no harm for you to say that while it's a no today, it could change down the track. It could also be a good idea to express gratitude to your boss for considering you for the task, even if you don't want to or can't do it. They likely came to you because they trust your abilities which is, in fact, a compliment.
2. Offer solutions
You can always be direct with your boss and let them know you can’t accommodate their request and offer to work through a solution together. This way your boss will still feel supported and you have made your position clear.
Perhaps you can come up with some different ways to achieve the same outcome or offer to brainstorm ideas together. Maybe you know of a colleague who would love to help out or another team member who would appreciate the opportunity and is willing to learn along the way.
If you don’t want to complete a task because you don’t agree with the approach or the task itself, make it known you have the interests of the team at heart and share your idea. If you are able to share solid facts for why a particular path should be chosen, your boss may really appreciate the suggestion. Be sure to seek their opinion so they are part of the solution too.
If you need to decline because of workload, offer to share the tasks and priorities on your plate and the consequences of taking on extra work. Maybe your boss can push some other work back to make room for this current request. If you are unable to offer small favours on the basis of being too busy, try to ensure you are not seen leaving work early or taking long breaks. This will not be seen positively by your boss or your peers, given you have declined to complete a request they have asked.
3. Don’t beat around the bush
The way you say no is important. While there will be a temptation to soften your “no” to avoid offending your boss, it could give the impression that you’re still open to changing your mind. If this is not the case, try to be firm in the way you say no without being rude. Soft, "self-deprecating" explanations aren't persuasive and easily pushed to the side so be honest and upfront about your valid reasons rather than saying what you think your boss wants to hear.
Ideally this discussion is held in person however if needed via email then ending your email with a closing statement such as “Thanks for your understanding,” makes it clear there is no room for negotiation.
4. Try to avoid a power struggle
Ensure you acknowledge you understand the ultimate decision will come down to your boss. Let them know that while you might have strong opinions on the matter, you appreciate this is their call to make.
If they persist, you will likely realise how serious they are about their request and will then be placed in a more difficult position of having to stand your ground and wear the consequences. If this is not the first time, perhaps it is unlikely you and your boss are going to see eye-to-eye and it is time to request a transfer or consider opportunities outside your current workplace.
5. Don’t make it personal
When you talk to your boss, be sure to be respectful at all times and stick to the facts, keeping any personal feelings or politics out of the discussion. You may think their ideas are crazy, that the work you are being asked to undertake is beneath you or even that your boss is lazy so are less inclined to pick up their slack and work extra hours to accommodate.
While you may wish to share these views the goal here is to try and say no to your boss in a way that leaves you as unscathed as possible. A personal attack will not achieve this outcome and instead make you seem like a problem employee.
6. Consider timing
Look for a time when your boss is open to the discussion. If they have been under a lot of pressure or stress, it is unlikely
you will reach a mutually beneficial outcome if they already have their hackles up – especially if your discussion could add to their workload or stress levels.
Instead, look for a time when they seem calm and open to a discussion and approach the discussion rationally and professionally with respect.
Ask questions and understand the reason for the request. Your boss deserves to be heard.
Try and help find solutions or offer to brainstorm ways to get to the same outcome, even if you can’t assist this time.
Tell the truth and be clear with why you can’t meet their request.
Express gratitude for being asked to undertake the task or request. Your boss may have seen it as a compliment.
Appreciate the final say comes down to your boss.
Pick your timing, find a way to make the conversation easy on them and you.
Simply say no without offering explanation.
Soften your “no” so much that it leaves ambiguity that you are still open to the idea.
Decline work because you are too busy and spend time at the local café, long lunches and walking out the door right on closing time.
Tell them their request, idea or strategy is crazy and that you will not be supportive.
Rally together your colleagues to tell your boss that none of you will be undertaking the request.
Get into a power struggle about who is right or wrong in this case.
If you need any assistance with hiring, contact a recruitment agency like Trojan Recruitment Group and receive advice from the experts in labour-hire, permanent and contract staff.