How to say no to your boss


One syllable. Two letters. Days of anguish. But saying no isn’t as hard as you think.

For some of us, the thought of saying no to our superior fills us with dread. Often, we end up saying yes to accepting tasks when we don’t have the bandwidth to handle, or even worse, when the responsibilities are not even relevant to your role.

To avoid looking like a pushover and overloading yourself with work, here are five common scenarios you can confidently say no to your boss in without feeling like you’re putting your job at risk.

Scenario 1: You have been asked to take on yet another project when you’re already at your maximum bandwidth.
Try to look upon such requests positively – your boss basically trusts you to take on the workload or he/she thinks your involvement might give your career a boost.

Try this: “I’ll be happy to add that to my portfolio but I’m not sure if I should. Shall we sit down for 15 minutes to review my workload so I can shift my priorities?”

Sit your boss down and run them through a list of everything that is on your plate at the moment, including your projects and current progress. Showing, rather than telling, will give them a clear picture of what has been taking up your time and will be more effective than plainly saying, “I don’t have time for this.”

Scenario 2: You are counting down the days to a long-awaited vacation when you learn that you are still expected to reply to emails.
Short of throwing your phone into the sea, we suggest trying to understand why you are still expected to maintain some work presence. Once you determine that your presence is not absolutely needed and that your teammates will fill in for you, catch your boss at a good moment and say,

“I’ve checked with the team and everyone is confident the project will run smoothly when I’m away. I’ve done up an extensive handover list, and the team has been briefed on exactly what to do.”

Reading our post on how to prepare for a vacation might also help.

Scenario 3: You’ve been given a task that isn’t relevant to your role.
One must tread warily in situations like this. The important thing here is to know exactly what your role requires, and to be firm (but polite) with your refusal. Try saying, “I’m glad you thought of me but I think my inexperience in this task may impede the progress. Perhaps we can come up with a solution together?”

In their bid to increase productivity, bosses might not realise that they’ve crossed a line. This is a good chance to remind them of the demands of your role, and how you are already contributing to your organisation.

Scenario 4: Your boss is organising yet another round of after-work drinks, but you just want a quiet evening in.
This situation is easy to bow out of without diving into details. Something as simple as, “I had lots of fun the last time we went out but I can’t make it tonight. I’ll join in the next round!” will suffice. Being seen as a good sport will increase your standing in the office, so try to turn up at the next social event, but with an exit strategy in mind.

Scenario 5: Your boss is insisting that you handle a project in a manner that you disagree with.
The trick to handling this situation lies in firm diplomacy and confidence in your own skillset. First, put your ego aside and ask yourself if your boss’ way is truly the best way to proceed. If it’s not, speak to your boss. Say:

“Thanks for your suggestions! I’ve previously handled a similar project and it went very well, with results that exceeded our expectations. I see the merit of your suggestions though, so here’s my new plan…”

Remember: there are many ways to skin a cat. By letting your boss know that his input is appreciated, you’re allowing for a more open and frank conversation to happen. Subtly reminding your boss of your own expertise and experience can help convince him or her to let you hold the reins, provided you know what you’re doing.

To sum it up, there are several ways on how to say no to your boss but always make sure you back up your No(s) with a good explanation and an alternative solution. By making this a habit, you’ll be able to justify saying no to your boss while continuing to maintain a favourable impression of yourself with your superiors.

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