How to Say No to Your Boss

How to say no is a key skill in avoiding overload. When your boss gives you too many projects, it’s time to take a stand. Here’s how.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #254

How to Say No to Your Boss

by Stever Robbins

Bosses! I just love bosses, really, I do! Bosses tell me what to do and I do it. It’s just like being in a relationship! Only with a boss, I get paid instead of paying.

In my episode on prioritizing when you have many bosses, I suggested that sometimes you need to say “No” to a boss. And it’s not just bosses; sometimes you have to say “No” to other people at work. Today, we’ll explore that in a lot more detail.>

Know When to Say No

Of course, you don’t just say “No” willy-nilly. That would be bad. You would miss a lot of opportunity. But if you don’t say “No” enough, you end up overloaded with other people’s work that they’ve foisted on you because, well, because they can.

How do you know when to say “No?”

Say “No” when asked to do something that doesn’t play to your strengths. If you’re great at thinking creatively and strategically, say “No” when you’re asked to do detailed data entry. If you’re great at details, data, and technology, say “No” when asked to spend time brainstorming with clients.

When you apply your strengths, you’ll enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll do it well, and you’ll do it quickly. When given a task that plays to your weaknesses, you’ll take longer, you won’t enjoy it, and your life energy will drain away, turning you into a dry, brittle husk.

This isn’t an absolute “No,” however. Sometimes you want to stretch and grow outside your comfort zone. You may want to say “Yes” to go further with your career development.

Push Back if You’re at Capacity

Even if you want to take on an additional project, look over your current commitments and realistically decide if you have time. Remember your schedule needs enough unscheduled “slack time” so you can deal with unexpected emergencies without throwing your whole life into chaos. (Unless the unexpected emergency is global warming or peak oil, in which case slack time won’t help very much.) Plus, you have to remember to schedule time for all those transitions so you’re not totally overwhelmed. If you have no room for a new commitment, say “No.”

Negotiate Exchanges with Colleagues

If it’s a colleague asking and you want to find a way to say “Yes” to their request, say “I’d like to say yes, but I’m completely booked. Maybe you can help?” Then outline the projects currently on your plate. Find out if there’s some way your colleague can help with one of your projects, while you help with theirs.

Imagine a colleague asks you to help negotiate delivery terms with a vendor while you’re trying to finish a report. Maybe your colleague (who could secretly be a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist in their spare time) can edit the draft of your report while you negotiate with the vendor.

Negotiate Terms with Your Boss

If it’s your boss asking, you need to help your boss manage you wisely. First, use simple math to estimate how much progress you will be able to make on the new initiative.

Count up the total number of projects and initiatives you’re working on. Let’s say you have 5 major projects. Divide that into 40 to find the number of hours each week you can spend on each project. In this case, 40 divided by 5 means you can spend 8 hours each week per project. (Assuming all your time is spent on project work.) It will take you five weeks to put in a normal 5-day work week’s worth of progress on any one project.

If you take on a 6th initiative, you now can only spend 40/6 or about 6.5 hours per project per week. That means with a 6th project, you’ve split your time to the point where you can’t even make a full day’s progress on each project each week.

Give Your Boss Choices

By giving your boss choices, they get to stay boss.

Explain this calculation to your boss. Ask your boss what will be the best way to make room for the new project. Should you drop an existing project? Extend the deadline for an existing project and work on it fewer hours per week? Deliver at a lower quality level that will take you less time? By giving your boss the choice, they get to stay boss. You’re not saying “No,” you’re just outlining the reasonable, rational analysis of the situation.

Set Boundaries

If your boss says you must do everything at full quality level on time, your boss is living in a fantasy land. No, you can’t do 50 hours’ of work in 40 hours just by “working harder.” You just showed your boss the math. Have them explain specifically how you can reduce your per-project time by 1.5 hours on five projects, and still meet the same deadlines.

You aren’t a slave. You’re allowed to have a life. If your boss says “just come in on weekends,” it’s your time of reckoning. You can meekly submit and set the precedent of working 15% more for no additional pay. After all, I’m sure any boss who would ask that of you will gratefully surprise you next month with a 15% raise. Or with being laid off. You never know.

If you choose to tell your boss “No,” you’ve set boundaries, preserved your dignity, and maybe even gotten yourself fired. But this is the choice you’ve made. Say, calmly, “I’m sorry there isn’t time for me to take on a 6th project and still deliver the other 5. I can’t do it.” My episode on how to say No with integrity, will help.

Saying “Yes” to all requests is a quick way to work more and do less! Say “No” to requests that don’t play to your strengths, unless they’ll give you valuable learning experience. Figure out the schedule impact of saying “Yes,” negotiate exchanges when colleagues make requests, and negotiate project terms when your boss makes requests. If you truly must say “No,” do it with honesty, grace, and style.

I’m Stever Robbins. I help highly committed people take bold steps to up game personally and professionally. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Busy Employee image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.