How to Say No to Your Boss

Businesswoman in cubicle with laptop and stacks of files
Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

Are you the "yes man or woman" at work? Whenever your boss or a colleague needs anything, your name is at the tip of his or her tongue? If you are the go-to person at work when someone needs a "yes," congratulations! You've likely secured your place in the office. Who wants to lay off the person who can never say no? On the other hand, it's likely you put yourself (and probably non-work relationships) at risk in favor of doing whatever is necessary for your career. That could be a big mistake.

How can you find a balance between maintaining your indispensable status at work and your sanity? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Everyone's circumstances are different, and if you work in a place where you're only as good as the last thing you've done, not all of this advice may work for you. However, in many cases, once you've created a reputation for being helpful and agreeable, carefully choosing times to say "no" may not hurt your work reputation, and may actually earn you additional respect.

How can you say no without risking it all at work?

Choose the situation carefully.

If everyone is stressed to the hilt, you're up for a promotion and the boss comes to you with a desperate request for help, it's probably not the time to decide you're going to change your reputation as the "can-do" person in the office. On the other hand, if things are a bit more stable, and it seems like there are plenty of people who could help out, you should have more leeway to indicate if your plate is already full. See the following suggestions for ideas to say no instead of yes.

Learn to say no, without saying no.

Perhaps your boss forgot about all of the other crucial work you are doing. Instead of saying, "No, I cannot take on one more project," say, "I can see how important this project is. Can we sit down for a few minutes so you can help me prioritize my work? I want to be sure to focus on the most important things."

In this meeting, make sure you don't forget to include any key projects (or even day-to-day work) you're managing. If you can make a solid case indicating that you really don't have time to handle another thing, it's possible you can say "no" without actually uttering those words.

Suggest an alternate solution.

Perhaps you are too busy to take on the work by yourself, but you can handle one part of the project. If you have a specialty area (for example, you're the best at analyzing data), suggest that you could manage that piece of the project in partnership with someone who specializes in the research piece.

No doubt, this is a tricky conversation, as you are trying to deflect pieces of a project away from you. However, if you maintain an enthusiastic, "can do" approach and communicate in a way that will resonate with your boss, it's possible you can trick him or her into thinking you're still saying "yes," even though you are really saying "no."

Put your foot down, but have a really good reason.

What qualifies as a "good reason" will vary from office to office. Condolences to you if you work in a place where there are no good reasons – perhaps you are in the wrong job and it is time to look for a new job that values your time outside of work.

If you already have planned time off to attend a family wedding or your child's graduation, and this new project will interfere with that, you may choose to tell your boss you cannot help. Ideally, you won't lead the conversation with the word "no." Instead, choose your words carefully, remind your supervisor that you always like to say yes, but the circumstances this time mean you'd like to help by coming up with another solution.

> Is yes the only possible answer? Find a new job.