How to Say No to Your Boss While Still Being Credible

How to Say No to Your Boss While Still Being Credible

“Say no to my boss? Really? I can’t say no to anyone, let alone my boss,” you say. Ok, maybe you can say no to some people, sometimes. But when it comes to our bosses many of us struggle. And the problem is worsening in lockdown. Working remotely means many of us are working later than normal, finding it harder to keep a clear boundary between work and home and virtual presenteeism a real issue. Some may also be feeling worried about possible redundancies at work, which can put extra pressure on you to say ‘yes’ to everything that’s asked of you.
Actually, it’s key to our performance at work to be able to say no when we’re too busy to fit in a task. If we’re overloaded, exhausted and fed up, as it affects the quality of our work.

Ask yourself – ‘What’s Behind the Yes?’

The first step is to figure out what’s behind saying yes, especially when you don’t have the time, energy or mental capacity to do it. You’re already busy between work, life and family commitments (forget about personal time). Remember the last time your boss asked you to add another piece of work, task or project to your towering to-do list? In that moment before responding, what were you thinking and feeling? Ask yourself: What was my motivation for saying yes? What were my fears of saying no?

If I was coaching you I’d stay on those questions a long time. The insights from your answers would allow you to potentially identify some limiting beliefs. In absence of interaction, the most common reasons I come across in working with my clients are: fear of rejection, fear of disappointing, being seen as not good enough, feeling manipulated, too timid, jeopardizing your job and/or wanting to please. Those thoughts are the worst reasons to say yes.

A caveat, if you are worried about your performance, reputation or likelihood of promotion then deal with that directly. Review your recent performance appraisals – what do they really say about your ability? Is your boss aware you want a promotion? If not, tell him/her – ‘promote yourself’. If you have too much work or are close to burnout, have a discussion with your boss about workload and expectations.

Identify your priorities

We can’t do everything we want all the time. There are only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Step two is identifying your priorities. There’s always a balance between the number of priorities that are motivating and possible, versus burning out – prioritising is easy to say, harder to do. What are your work and life priorities? How much time do you want to spend at work to achieve the level of performance you want, given your priorities in the other areas in your life?
Write your priorities down. You need to be clear on what they are and how flexible you are about them. What are your boundaries? What’s acceptable to you and where do you draw the line? If you don’t know, you’ll have a hard time knowing when you’ve crossed them or when someone has tried to push them.

Say no, by saying yes

One approach is to say yes (to something else) – let me explain.

When you are ‘asked’ to do something there is the option of saying YES or NO. Very simple words and when talking about conscious choice and commitment they are very profound. Whenever you say YES to something, you are saying NO to something else. When you say YES to working late, you are saying NO to joining your family for dinner. Often, you would be saying NO to meeting the deadlines of your own projects, your family or your wellbeing. So rather than focusing on the NO and disappointing the person immediately in front of you, say YES to your conscious priorities. If you are only willing, or able, to say ‘I guess I can’ to something, say NO. The enthusiasm and boldness of your YES or NO should tell you something about how wholeheartedly you are committing to it or not. This prioritization approach allows you to say project A is my focus, so I can’t do project B. A discussion is then possible – about changing your priorities or giving you an extension. It shows your boss you can prioritize and are committed.

Tip – put your priorities in your calendar, all of them. Most colleagues can see each other’s calendars on-line, at least when they are booked and when they are ‘available’. Book your time with your priorities, including thinking time. Booking yourself is even more important now with working from home as some of the physical boundaries we used to have (like the commute, or workplace vs home space) are gone. This shows you what ‘free’ time you do have left over to take on more work.

Be assertive

Another approach focuses on assertiveness and is derived from Manuel Smith’s book, When I Say No I Feel Guilty.

1) Acknowledge the request: “I really understand how important that is to you/the business…” (or words to that effect).

2) Own the refusal—I won’t, I will not, I am not going to. The idea is to avoid saying can’t or unable as they imply lack of skill or ability, which is rarely the reason for saying no. Use a respectful tone. Assertiveness isn’t aggression.

3) Give a TRUTHFUL reason.

4) OPTIONAL: offer an alternative (a date in the future, another person to ask).


I fully understand why you want me to do that as I am best suited for that job
and I am not going to do it

I am at capacity.

(optional: Ask me earlier next time and we can prioritize accordingly.)

Saying NO at first will be hard for both you and your boss because you have conditioned your boss to the fact that you say YES. The more often in the past you have said YES, the more likely they will be expecting you to say YES again. But it gets easier – and more than likely your boss will respect you for your assertiveness and dedication to achieving the projects and task you are doing well.

Book a COMPLIMENTARY coaching session with me here for support in further developing your leadership. Where would saying ‘no’ more benefit you?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels