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How to say no to your boss without the risk of losing your job

Invariably there are moments where you will have to say no to your boss. The reasons could be due to your inability to add yet another task to your workload or it could be due to a disagreement over a decision your boss made. Regardless of the circumstances, approaching the conversation can create anxiety depending on the relationship with your boss and the cultural norms of your work environment. Saying no requires the right mental framework that is both professional and respectful. The following tips can help you make the right moves when saying no to your boss.


Do consider the request

Depending on how your boss approached you with a request (email, in-person, phone), if you don’t immediately agree with what your boss is asking in terms of an action or decision, take a moment to ask a clarifying question to what is being requested. Pausing to restate what you heard is an effective way to make sure you can evaluate what is being asked of you before you say no.

Do think about timing

You may not always have a moment to consider saying no to a request from your boss, but if you do, make sure you choose the right time and place to deliver your response. If the request is a small matter, email might be appropriate but if it is significant (like additional work), scheduling a meeting that is convenient for your manager is necessary to address the concerns you have directly.

Do be tactful and transparent

Sensitively saying no requires an approach that both respects your boss’s position and provides your boss details about why you cannot complete the request. You should have a legitimate reason why there is a conflict and detail what those reasons are. Ultimately you want to acknowledge you received the request and understand its importance without being defensive about why you cannot do what your boss asked for. Rehearsing what you plan to say and doing a mental walkthrough of the outcome you want to achieve will help you stay focused.

Do prepare alternatives

If saying no is a turn towards a better solution your boss was not aware of, then go with that. You might find compromise in how a request is handled, for example identifying others the request can be delegated to. You should also highlight key risk factors of other tasks that will get dropped. Supporting other ways to get the task done maintains your willingness to get something done, but also considers the reality of your immediate work priorities.


Do not assume saying no guarantees you are off the hook

Even if you have a valid reason for saying no to your boss’s request, you might remain accountable to getting the task done. Your responsibility is to outline the concerns you have and other work that might be at risk, but unilaterally stating that you cannot do something will probably result in some form of conflict.

Do not become resentful or defensive

Some requests made by your boss might trigger in you a reaction that your boss doesn’t think you have anything better to do. In other cases, the nature of the request may appear below your pay grade or somehow disrespectful to your contributions. If you feel slighted, saying no becomes a logical response simply to prove a point or gain a moment of catharsis. Treat the request for what it is – a request – and think about how you plan to say no. Always keep your focus on the issue in front of you not misperceptions.

Do not be chummy to get your boss to drop the request

An ill-advised approach is to try and charm, laugh, or cajole your way out of actually saying no. Being coy or overly friendly to guilt or otherwise have your boss reconsider something is simply manipulation that has potentially disastrous effects down the road. Be clear and upfront about why you are saying no without resorting to playground tactics to get out of an action.

Do not hesitate to turn down any unethical or illegal requests

Should your boss try to get you to do something that is compromising to you personally, the company, or others, you must say no immediately. Such a request can be subtle like lying to a customer about a product feature, or to ignore a situation or issue that you find morally apprehensible. Few conditions warrant going along with such requests.

Jumping cartoon

Saying no to your boss should be an extension of a mutually respectful relationship not a reason to hide. As a professional you must be accountable to what you can or cannot handle as well as voice your opinion when another course of action can be taken. Simply being a Yes-Man all the time is not effective in the long run as much as saying nothing and dealing with all of your boss’s requests is. Diplomacy in pushing back on your boss is a must in order to strike a balance between delivering quality performance and achieving successful outcomes.

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Tony DeblauweWorkplace and Career Expert

Tony Deblauwe is a Workplace and Career Expert and founder of consulting firm, HR4Change. He has over 15 years’ experience working in high-tech companies supporting Human Resources, Organizational Development, Talent Management, and Training. H...

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