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How to Say “No” to Your Boss Without Hurting Your Career

You may be wondering how to say “no” to your boss without hurting your career: May Busch has some tips for you.

Written by: May Busch

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.

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