Technically, your boss owns your professional time. That means it's perfectly within her rights to reprioritize what you're working on if she thinks doing so is the best thing for the team.
But even good bosses can have a hard time understanding what's being sacrificed when they assign new tasks and projects. And if you continuously allow your boss to pile new things on your plate, you'll eventually find yourself delaying other work or not getting it done at all. In the end, that reflects poorly on you -- and that's not fair.
Saying "no" to your boss can be intimidating, but there are plenty of cases where it's a totally appropriate thing to do. The key is learning how to say no in a way that's tactful and helps your boss find an alternative solution.
This is a skill that'll serve you well in every stage of your career. Being able to say "no" to the right things in the right ways will end up saving you a whole lot of time and pain.
So the next time your boss asks you to increase your workload, take on a task you think is a bad idea, or work outside of your normal hours ... how do you know whether it's an okay time to say "no"? And what's the best way to decline?
When Is It Okay to Say 'No' to Your Boss?
There are some situations when it's okay to say no to your boss, and some situations when it's not. The first question you should ask yourself is: What situation are you in when the request comes in?
For example, if you're within the first six months of a brand new job, you need to be more of a "yes-man" (or woman) than not in order to establish yourself as a hardworking, motivated, and competent team player. Putting in extra time and effort when you're proving yourself to a new team is, frankly, what's expected of you in a new role. Same goes if you've just received poor feedback or a bad evaluation at work and need to spend some time proving yourself again.
Finally, if you've recently said "no" to a request from your boss, you'll want to think more carefully about this new one so you don't come across as a naysayer.
But if you've proven yourself by being a high performer and a valuable coworker, then you can set some limits.
How to Say 'No' To Your Boss
Let's walk through a few tips for setting yourself up to say no to your boss in a way that's diplomatic and acceptable.
1) Respond right away, even if it's just to ask for more time.
When that request comes in over email or in a virtual chat, it can be easy to "hide out" and pretend you didn't see it until you have a well-formulated response. (Unless your boss uses the HubSpot Sales Chrome extension, that is. It notifies you when someone opens your emails.)
As tempting as it might be, don't wait to respond until you have a rebuttal prepared. The more communicative you are from the get-go, the more trustworthy and professional you'll appear -- putting you in a better position to negotiate later.
But what should you say in that initial response?
If you take only one thing away from this article, this is it: Saying no to your boss doesn't mean actually saying the word "no."
While something like "No, sorry, I don't have time right now" might seem like a totally legitimate response to you, an instantaneous "no" can not only be off-putting, but it could also signify to your boss that you're having trouble prioritizing and executing on your work.
For the sake of your relationship with your boss and your integrity as an employee, you'll need to tread more carefully than that. So instead, here's what you might write in that initial response:
Validate their request.
Instead of just saying "no," Leadership Development Expert Kirstin Lynde suggests responding first with words of affirmation.
"As soon as you get the request, you might say something like, 'I understand why this is an important thing to get done,'" she told me. "Or, if you don't think that, you might say, 'I think I see what you mean.'"
This validates the request and shows your boss you're listening without necessarily assigning you as the point person for the task.
Once you've affirmed their request, Lynde suggests that you get curious.
"Ask questions. Say, 'It would be helpful to understand a little bit more about what you're thinking -- about timing, the amount of attention you want me to give to this, and so on,'" she suggests. "You may have a totally different concept than your boss does of how long it'll take and which skills will be needed."
The answers to these questions will give you more context for you to frame your pushback around (or might reveal to you that you can take the project on after all, negating the "no" entirely).
Ask for a little bit of time if you need it.
If you need to, buy yourself some time to evaluate the request and whether or not you can actually do it. You might say something like, "May I have a half a day to think this through and see where it fits alongside my other priorities?" Unless it's super urgent, a good boss is likely to honor that request.
2) List out why you need or want to say 'no.'
Once you've established that you've received the request and bought yourself some time, use it to thoughtfully evaluate whether -- and why -- you need to decline.
Is it because you have a looming deadline on an important project? Or do you disagree with the strategy? Is it because you consider whatever's being asked of you unethical? Or is it because you're days away from a big vacation and you simply don't have the availability to take on anything new just now?
As you brainstorm, write down these answers. They'll come in handy later when you're formulating a response to your boss.
3) Put yourself in your boss' shoes.
Empathy can be a powerful tool when attempting to persuade. By considering the situation from your boss' perspective, you'll be able to frame a much more compelling argument later.
Ask yourselves questions like:
- Why is your boss asking you to do this?
- What business purpose does it serve?
- If you declined the request, what would happen?
By considering the situation from her point of view as well as your own, you'll be able to more easily come up with a solution that is agreeable to both parties -- whether it's executing on the proposed plan, or putting a different one forward.
4) Come up with an alternative solution.
If you're still leaning toward a "no," your strongest argument will include an alternative way to solve the problem. Your boss will appreciate the concern and effort you put into helping her find some way to get the task done, even if you're not the one doing it.
For example, you might ask to postpone the task until some of your other priorities are finished, or possibly come back with a list of coworkers who might be up for the task. Have any colleagues who might be interested in growing their career through projects like this, or whose background is a better fit? That's a great way to show you're paying attention to and are interested in your peers' professional development.
5) Ask your boss to help you reprioritize.
If not having enough time to complete the task is your main concern, ask your boss to help you reprioritize. This will give her a better understanding of what you have on your plate and what you'd have to give up by taking on a new task or project, while also giving her a chance to share her two cents on what's important.
You might say something like, "In taking this on, I want to make sure I don't drop the ball on other priorities. Would you mind helping me sort out my current projects and figure out where this fits in?"
Then, set up a meeting and share what you're working on, how long it's taking, and what you'd have to delay or stop doing if you were to take on the new project. To prepare, type our your notes neatly and clearly in a document you can share with your boss to show you've put time and effort into collaborating on a mutually beneficial solution.
If all goes well, you'll end the meeting with permission to move around your priorities in a way both of you are happy with.
6) Choose your words carefully.
During this conversation, frame your responses in a way that makes it clear you're thinking and concerned about the company's interests -- and choose your wording carefully.
"Most [good bosses] say they’re willing to listen to sound reasoning to find a solution," says Diane Amundson, a workplace communications consultant. "It’s all about how you frame and phrase it."
Here are some tips to help you get your ideas across effectively:
- Acknowledge her idea. Your boss will be more open to listening to an alternative solution or hearing a "no" if you've first validated her suggestion.
- Be direct, but tactful. This is a key business skill that'll serve you well in every stage of your career.
- Avoid negative excuses, like "It's not my turn"; "I did it last time"; "I wouldn't know where to begin to do that."
- Use positive phrasing. Instead of saying, "I can't do this project because I have too much other work," try something like, "I know this project is important for hitting our number this month, and I have a few ideas about how to reorganize the workload."
- Show you're resourceful by doing your research and presenting other ideas.
- Don't get defensive. Position your message in a neutral, rational way. For example, you might say, "I understand your perspective, and here’s another way to think about the situation."
- Show you care about the team's goals. You and your boss share a higher purpose: to accomplish your team and company goals. Acknowledge that you're in it together, and frame your suggestions as ways to help that goal.
7) Be communicative.
Don't wait too long before scheduling a conversation with your boss or letting her know that you won't be able to carry out her request. If your boss sees you've left a conversation open-ended, she might think she's being blown off.
The more communicative you are, the more trustworthy and professional you come across. Plus, keeping her in the loop will help you and her figure out an alternative solution with time to spare.
Pushing back on a request from your boss can be intimidating -- especially if your boss is the kind of person who's constantly sending you new ideas and pushing projects onto you unexpectedly.
But in the end, being honest about what you can and cannot accomplish is much better than setting yourself up for failure.
What other advice can you add about saying "no" to your boss? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments below.