Say No to Your Boss (Without Saying No)

Saying no is hard, especially in the professional world where being a go-to team player often means everything. A seasoned executive offers some simple advice on how to handle a tricky situation without coming off like a slacker.

Saying no should be easy, but for such a small word, it carries a lot of baggage. People are programmed to please, and everyone is looking for acceptance and affiliation. Because we are so focused on being liked, “we say ‘no’ much less frequently than we should,” said Martin Moore, a leadership performance expert and cofounder of the company Your CEO Mentor.

When you’re getting a ton of overwhelming tasks dumped on you, there are some steps you can take to let your boss know it’s too much without being insubordinate, fearing you will lose your job, or seeming like you’re not a team player. Even better? You don’t have to actually say no. “The word should never pass your lips,” he said. Here are three tips.

Something’s Got to Give

When you get that added task to a plate that’s already teetering on the brink, your first response should be a positive one. But then follow that up by explaining that while you are more than happy to take on a new assignment, you’re going to have to reassess your priorities and will need your supervisor’s help with that. It’s important to explain that by doing this new task, another task might suffer. “Something’s got to give,” Moore said.

A lazy boss might not be happy with that. Sometimes they just want you to do it and not bother them with the details. “But if you can manage to engage your boss in the conversation, that’s the place to start,” he said. But to do that you need to understand your own workload and be able to clearly outline it to your boss.

“That’s where you get the opportunity to have the conversation about not doing something that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Take Baby Steps

It’s understandable you might be afraid of disappointing your boss, or fearful that she will go to someone else to get it done. You need to help your boss understand that you don’t want to try and do 50 things all at once because you will end up doing them all poorly. It’s essential to get your boss to see that if you are able to focus on the big-value items and do them very well, that will result in the best outcome for the team.

Moore acknowledges it takes some confidence. “That’s why baby steps in all of this are really important,” he said. And the first baby step is, “Hey, boss, please help me see how I’m going to fit this in.”

Explain Your Constraints

There are only so many hours in the day and the amount of energy you put into your job is a finite resource. You want to make sure you are using that set reserve in the best way possible for the good of the team. It’s all about communication.

“How you articulate that to your boss is what’s going to differentiate you from someone who is just a ‘department of no,’ as opposed to someone who is genuinely interested in getting the right outcome,” Moore said.

And don’t be afraid to express your personal circumstances. Giving your boss a window into the fact that you actually do have a life by explaining certain priorities, like being there for your kid’s soccer game, is OK. Make it clear that there are times when you absolutely will give 100 percent, but there are also times when you need to tend to your life outside of work.

However, while it is good to let your supervisor know about what’s happening in your life, everyone has different comfort levels. Moore’s rule of thumb is to be free with personal information, but don’t overshare. For example, he recommends saying you’re having a few difficulties at home, but leave out the messy details.

“There’s still an appropriate, professional, arms-length distance that you need to maintain,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean you can’t give some understanding of what your life is like.”

(turk_stock_photographer/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Lisa Boylan

By Lisa Boylan

Lisa Boylan is a senior editor of Associations Now. MORE

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