Laura Berlinsky-Schine
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You’re completely overwhelmed with work. But your boss either doesn’t know or doesn’t care, and here they are, coming over with a new request. Can you just say “no”?

No. Well, you can... But you shouldn’t. Just as this is a word you should try to avoid in job interviews, it’s also one you should limit in your interactions with your manager. Sure, they may have unreasonable requests sometimes. But outright shooting them down will probably cause more trouble for you.

By this, we mean saying “no” and walking away. Of course, you can still turn down the request in some circumstances, all while doing it in a well-thought-out, polite way that’s more likely to solicit a positive response.

Good reasons to say ‘no’

There are some poor reasons for saying “no” — if you're scared of learning or trying something new, for example. But there are also several good reasons to do it. They include:

You’re truly overwhelmed with work.

You already have so much work on your plate that you’re not sure whether you’ll even be able to finish it all. Agreeing to take on one more project or assignment just wouldn’t be possible. You’d have to neglect your other responsibilities or deliver subpar results, neither of which is going to impress your boss.

You lack the necessary skillset.

If you don’t have the proper skill set to complete the assignment, then you won’t be able to complete it satisfactorily. Just say so. Otherwise, you’ll struggle through a project without meeting the expectations.

Of course, there are some things you might be able to learn quickly. If it won’t take you too long to get up to speed, then you’re probably not justified in refusing.

There are competing priorities.

Perhaps you have a meeting to attend — one your boss forgot about or was unaware of in the first place — and it would interfere with your ability to complete this additional project. Or maybe there are other competing priorities. This is an important reason; after all, you can’t do two things at once.

You have a personal or family emergency.

If you have a real personal or family emergency, such as the death of someone close to you, this is a very good excuse for not only refusing to take on yet another project but also a valid reason for calling out of work. Most likely, your company already has a policy about these types of situations in place. But if not, you should have a conversation with your boss about your personal circumstances and how you need to be supported.

Your boss is asking you to do something immoral, unethical or illegal.

In what is hopefully an extremely rare occasion, your boss might ask you to do something that goes against the company’s principles or your own. Perhaps they might even ask you to do something illegal. This is unacceptable and maybe the most important reason why you should say no. This type of situation will often warrant further action, such as reporting it to a higher-up — or even pursuing legal recourse.

7 ways to say ‘no’ to your boss

These approaches will help the conversation go more smoothly.

1. Give a concrete, justified reason.

Rather than saying “I can’t do it” upfront, give a real, concrete reason. If, for example, you have competing priorities, such as the aforementioned example of an important meeting, lay it all out.

“I’d be happy to do it, but I have that meeting with the sales team this afternoon.”

“I wish I could, but I have tasks A, B and C to finish by the end of this week.”

Chances are, your boss will accept this response and may propose a way around it or find an alternative way of getting the assignment completed. Or, they could change the specifications of the project, such as pushing the deadline to accommodate your schedule.

2. Reframe your phrasing.

“No” can be a jarring word, as simple as it sounds. It is by its very nature negative. So, rather than framing it in this purely negative way, try to reframe it.

“I really wish I could do it, but I’m not sure it’s feasible given X, Y and Z.”

“Hmm, I have so much on my plate right now. Could we perhaps alter the timeframe?

Often we don’t think carefully enough about what we say and how we say it. Paying closer attention to how you frame things will almost certainly positively influence your interactions in other respects, too. 

3. Propose an alternative.

Perhaps you don’t agree with the idea your manager is asking you to execute. Or, maybe you just can’t feasibly do it successfully. Rather than dismissing it outright, try proposing an alternative route.

“What do you think about doing such and such?”

“Can I suggest an additional [or alternative] approach?”

“What you consider doing X instead or in addition to that?

If you outright dismiss or shoot down an idea, it puts your boss on the defensive. You shouldn’t put anyone in that position. And if you do it to an authority figure, then you’ll be putting yourself and your career at risk. It will look like you don’t respect them.

4. Be empathetic.

Demonstrate that you understand your boss’s perspective before immediately shooting it down. This will make them feel heard and understood. If you immediately say “no,” they’ll be less willing to listen to you and agree to your alternative proposal.

“I understand where you’re coming from. How about we do X?”

“That makes a lot of sense. Perhaps we could combine ideas and do [Y]?”

5. Ask for their help.

People tend to love being asked for their help, unless the help you’re requesting poses an undue burden on them. But generally speaking, it shows that you respect their opinion and that they can be a real asset to you. And of course, everyone wants to feel appreciated.

So, rather than simply saying no, you can’t do something, reframe it by asking for their help.

“I have a lot of competing priorities right now. Could you help me prioritize my to-do list?”

“I also have [X project] on my plate right now. Actually, I’d love to get your opinion on it. Maybe we could go through it before I take on [Y project]?”

This will also help your boss see everything you have going on, which may make them rethink the team’s priorities and what they need you to do first.

6. Show your manager the evidence.

Nothing supports your argument as well as concrete facts. If you have evidence, use it.

“I’m not sure if I can squeeze that into my to-do list. Here, let me open up the tracker and show you what I’ve been doing.”

“The results for our last campaign suggest that we should be spending more time on [X] than [Y]. Let me show you the analytics…”

7. Offer to share the load.

The fact remains: there is work on the table that needs completing. If you can’t do it, try suggesting an alternative or offer to share the work with a colleague.

“I have a lot on my plate right now, but I know Lisa is really good at [skill]. Perhaps I can handle this part of the project, and she could take the other part.”

“I have the sales meeting at the same time as this meeting. But maybe Lisa could go in my place? I know she’s been eager to take on more responsibilities.”

Not only does this help ease your burden, but it could give coworkers opportunities to prove themselves.

5 tips for the perfect delivery

Here's how to say "no" like a pro.

1. Be completely honest.

Or rather, as honest as you can be without endangering yourself in any way. (This might apply to a situation in which you’re asked to do something unethical or illegal.)

So, so long as it’s possible and safe, be forthcoming. For instance, do you lack the skills you need to complete the work successfully? Then just say so.

2. Be direct.

Be clear when explaining why you aren’t able (or willing) to do the job you’re being asked to do. Don’t allow your boss room to misinterpret — intentionally or not — what you’re saying. 

Rather than saying “I don’t think I can, but…” say “I can’t.” Sure, you can temper your language so it doesn’t sound rude, but avoid leaving wiggle room. You want to be straightforward so your boss isn’t left thinking you’re going to do something you’re not actually going to do.

3. Acknowledge who’s in charge.

Hint: it’s your boss. Like it or not, they’re the person who has the ultimate control over the situation. Maintain a respectful tone throughout your conversation. Don’t forget that you’re the employee and they’re the manager.

To acknowledge the chain of command, perhaps you could actually articulate that and put it into words: “I know that this is your call,” for example. This will make the whole discussion go over a lot better than if they question whether you understand who’s the boss.

4. Keep feelings out of it.

Don’t cry. Don’t talk about your personal problems that have nothing to do with the work situation. Feelings should not be part of this conversation. Instead, keep it as professional as possible. 

Yes, we all have our moments. But if you bring your emotions into the conversation, you’ll come across as unprofessional, and it will undermine you and your request.

5. Choose your timing wisely.

Did a major setback occur within the company? Did you just make a mistake — one that could be costly? Is your boss stressed about a work or personal issue (even if it has nothing to do with you)? Then this is not the right time to bring up a problem with a request.

Of course, you can’t always control it — you don’t know when your boss is going to decide when to drop an assignment on your plate. But whenever you can, try to time your response such that you’re not piling it on top of bad news.

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