How to tell your boss no — without getting fired

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In the Great Recession, conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t say “no” to your boss. I think you should. You see, until you say “no” to their request, you have no power and you have no value. Cubicle Warriors know they have both.

But, there is saying “no” and saying “no” in a way that makes sense. Let’s look at three examples.

Use your SMART Goals to define your work

One of the strongest arguments I make in my writing is that you need to negotiate your SMART goals in a way that defines them as your most important work. If your goals are not important to achieve for the business, why are they your goals?

If you have properly defined your goals and your manager is constantly giving you tasks not related to your goals, it is quite proper to push back on the work. You get paid for achieving your goals. Your performance review is often 75% based on achieving your goals. All the work you do not related to your goals is, in essence, wasting your time and the company’s time on stuff not related to the most important work.

If you have good SMART goals, it’s easy to say no. The work you are being asked to do doesn’t relate to your goals so it shouldn’t be done. And if it needs to be done because this work is now more important than your goals, then the goals need redefining. Period. Seriously. Because you are paid based on your goal achievement.

Change the rules of your work

If you are asked to do something you don’t think is part of your job, then push back to change the task so that it is part of your job. Making it as a part of your goal achievement or building your competencies enhances the value you have at work. So when you are asked to do something that isn’t quite right, negotiate a change in the task so that the task adds to the value you provide to the work.

The key thought here is this: if I do this work, how does it count on my performance review? I’d ask. The answer will be illuminating.

It’s “no,” but it is a “no” with a value-add.

Ask to re-prioritize the work

Your manager has given you plenty to do. This additional task doesn’t seem to fit into any of the work and you don’t want to do it. Fine. There are only so many hours in the day — what needs to come off the list that is less important than this thing that makes no sense?

Force the manager to relinquish work that has less priority and give that work so some other person (who can’t manage their tasks as well as you can) on the team. And if your manager tells you that it just needs to be done anyway and nothing comes off the list, that tells you a lot about the pressure the manager is under and the inability of the manager to push back against work that kills the motivation of the staff.

Make the manager manage

Most managers blindly give out tasks without thinking through who is best to do the work and how well the work fits in with their goals. I’ve done it as a manager — it is expedient and easy to do. “Mary” is a rock star — give it to her and you know it will get done. So you just give the task to her without thinking through the workload, the goals and the right fit for the work.

When you intelligently tell your manager “no,” the next time a task comes up that looks like something to give to you, your manager will carefully think through what is assigned to you. They will come up with the right justification because they know you will question receiving work that doesn’t make sense.

And you’ll get better work because you thought through how to say…no.

What are the best ways you’ve seen for saying “no” to your manager?

  • The good thing about saying “no” to a boss that listens is that you can come off looking better because it’s not just a matter of power or a stubborn attitude. You’re taking an active role in your career and not just going through the motions. A respectful “no” can be much more effective than a thoughtless “yes.”

    • @ Anthony — Exactly. How you say “no” makes a difference, but a smart manager will recognize that you are engaged in the work and are thinking through what you are doing.

      I’m hoping my “if you don’t say no you don’t have power or value” doesn’t come off as the goal for saying no to your boss. It is, instead, a way to show there is value to saying no and what you’ve described is what to shoot for.

      Thanks for leaving the comment.

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