Do you find it challenging to say “no” to your boss?

It’s natural to want to please your senior managers, especially your direct boss. After all, the more you can take from your boss’s shoulders the better for your career, right?

And if you’re an achiever, your default setting is to say “yes”. To take on the extra load to help out and show you’re willing to go the extra mile to deliver on your commitments.

Plus, your boss and senior managers determine your pay, promotion, staffing and future opportunities. And that power distance makes it challenging to say no, even when you really should.

But sometimes you need to say “no” to protect your team, and your own time and energy.

So how do you do it without upsetting your boss or worse yet, hurting your career?

Here are four ways to say no and still be on good terms with your boss:

  • Clarify the priorities
  • Redirect the request
  • Negotiate for resources
  • Get them to talk

Clarify the priorities

Sometimes your boss isn’t aware of everything you’re working on. Maybe you have multiple managers or work on cross-divisional projects. Perhaps your boss is simply not clued in on the day-to-day. This is when it’s helpful to get their help to clarify what’s most important to do first.

If you work for multiple managers, this could sound like, “I’d love to do this for you if you can get Nigel to agree to delay my other project”. And if your boss is simply not clued in on the day-to-day activities of you and your team, it could be something like, “I’d be happy to work on this – would you like me to do this before I do the other projects you gave me or after?”

Or you could try, “This sounds exciting – given the team is also working on XYZ that you’ve asked for, we can get on it next week. Does that work?”

The main point is to point out the other commitments you already have and get them to help clarify the priorities. For this conversation to work at its best, be sure to say this with warmth rather than defensiveness, and keep it matter of fact.

Which brings us to the next way to say no.

Redirect the request

Sometimes the request won’t be something you want to do, even if you had the time. And maybe it isn’t something in your area of expertise. In these situations, your best strategy is to suggest someone more appropriate and available.

For example, if you’ve been working with the same manager for a long time and they still think of you as that junior person who they get to do basic grunt work long after you’ve “grown out of” those tasks.

You could simply take on the task but delegate it, but then you’ll still get asked again in the future. This is where you can gently remind your boss that these tasks are more suited to someone else coming up the ranks.

For example, “I’ve got a full plate, but Gina would be a great person to take this on. She’s really the expert in this area and will do an even better job than me.”

Or “This would be a great stretch assignment for Julia. She’s one of the up-and-comers on the team and it would be a great opportunity for her to get some exposure to you. Would you like me to ask her for you?”

And this takes us to the third way.

Negotiate for resources

There will be times when your boss’s request is important and clearly needs to be done by you and your team at the same time as your existing projects. That’s when it’s useful to look for another way to get everything done.

I think of this as finding “the third way”. And that means getting creative about thinking through new options. If your existing resources can’t be stretched any further then it’s time to ask yourself, “what would need to be true in order for us to get everything done?”

This is a great question for cutting through your assumptions about constraints. And you need to think beyond the current constraints to find a creative option.

Does it mean needing more resources, whether that’s people, budget, expertise, or something else? Whatever that is, this is the time to negotiate for those resources. And it doesn’t need to be hiring a full-time person. It could be outsourcing on a temporary basis, bringing in an intern or getting another team involved.

So your conversation could sound like, “… to do this, we’ll need XYZ… and we’ll need your help with that.”

Which brings us to the fourth way.

Get them to talk

Or more accurately, get them to talk themselves out of the idea. This is for those requests that probably don’t need to be done at all, and certainly not by you. For example, asking you and your team to get an additional analysis done overnight even though the client hasn’t asked for it and it won’t make a difference to your recommendations.

Often, it’s because your boss simply hasn’t thought through their ask. Or they’re passing along the request from someone higher up.

In these cases, you’ll want to use the mirroring strategy from former FBI lead hostage negotiator Chris Voss and author of Never Split the Difference. In his book, Voss lays out four simple steps to use when your boss stops by your desk and makes the unreasonable request.

You start by adopting what Voss calls the “late night DJ voice” – mellow, smooth and soothing. Then you say, “I’m sorry, …” and repeat your boss’s last words as a question. As in “I’m sorry, additional analysis?” Then you wait in silence for at least four seconds to let the mirroring work its magic.

And each time your boss fills in the silence by saying something like, “well, maybe we don’t need all the cases re-run. Just the ones for Europe”, you repeat the process. Like, “I’m sorry, the ones for Europe?”

The key is to adopt a tone of trying to understand the request, not challenge it. And that will get your boss to really stop and think it through in real time. Even if the request doesn’t completely go away, it’s likely to be significantly reduced in scope.

But what if your boss won’t take no for an answer?

In that case, it’s about making sure your boss is aware of the implications of doing what she’s asked. One of my Next Level Leadership members was told she had to take on a big project even though she and her team were already working full out on an existing initiative. She was told to “be more nimble and agile” and find a way to do both with the resources she had.

She found success by presenting the plans for both options to her boss: doing both projects in a “nimble and agile” way versus doing just one of the projects thoroughly. By spelling out what would happen and letting her boss decide between the options, she was able to manage her boss’s expectations and paint a realistic picture of what the outcomes would be.

Just don’t fall into the trap of saying yes to avoid a difficult conversation

Remember, every “yes” is a “no” to something else. And taking on something that you don’t want or need to do will drain you (and your team) and leave you feeling more exhausted. Especially if it’s at the expense of something you really want to do.

It’s up to you to advocate for yourself

So next time your boss makes a request that you and your team don’t have the bandwidth to take on, choose the best way to say “no” while staying on good terms:

  • Clarify the priorities – you can’t assume your boss knows everything that you’re working on
  • Redirect the request – it could be a golden opportunity for someone else to take on
  • Negotiate for resources – think beyond the assumed constraints, identify what it would take and make an ask
  • Get them to talk – adopt Chris Voss’s mirroring technique for letting your boss talk herself out of the request

Which of these ways of saying “no” would work best with your boss?

Leave a comment and let me know.

For more strategies on managing your boss, check out the tips and trainings in Career Mastery™ on:

  • How to Keep Your Boss Updated and Do It Well
  • How to Manage Expectations From the Office While Working From Home
  • How to Get Your Boss to Rate You Highly
  • How to Manage Different Kinds of Bosses
  • How to Be “No Surprises” With Your Boss
  • And much more.