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How to Say No to Your Boss

No is not always a negative. While managers are not advised to make saying no to their superiors, sometimes they need to do so.

NO

No is not always a negative!

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I made the statement in a session I had with a leadership group and it was in reference to how to stand up for your team. While managers are not advised to make saying no to their superiors, sometimes they need to do so.

For example, when a team is working hard on a project with tight deadlines, and the boss comes calling to ask you and the team to do something else, you have a choice. Saying yes will mean piling up more work on the team. Saying no will free your team to focus on the work they are doing now and meeting the deadline.

In some organizations, it is acceptable to say no to a boss; in other cultures it may be the end of your career. So there is no easy way to say no, but if you feel you must say no here are some suggestions for what to say.

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I want to help you. Never open with no! Open with an affirming statement that indicates your willingness to listen and to be of assistance. Sound out your boss about how realistic it may be to turn down his request. For example, if the request is coming from on high, then likely you should oblige. But if it’s just another project request, find out if you can defer. Offer to find others to do the work.

Now after you establish your willingness to listen, shift the point of view of the conversation from you to the boss and you. That is, both you and the boss have a vested interest in the work that you and your team do.

We need us to complete my current project. Be specific about the work that you and your team are doing. Ask if you can put aside what you are working on now to focus on the new project your boss wants you to do. Make it clear that your boss’s reputation is tied up with the work you are doing now. You don’t want to jeopardize the project nor the boss’s reputation by taking on too much work that you and your team cannot handle.

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We need to help my team. Position yourself–and your boss–as protecting your team’s ability to work efficiently. Saying they are working hard is not enough. Be specific about your concerns of them taking on too many other projects. You praise their work ethic but stand up for their need to work more efficiently. Make it clear that the boss as a direct interest in the success of the team’s competence and credibility. Neither you nor your boss wants to put them in a bad spot.

Obviously no one wants to tell the boss no. In some instances failure to comply with a directive is viewed as insubordination and could be grounds for a reprimand or even a dismissal. In these instances, by all means, don’t buck the boss. Accommodate as best you can.

But every situation is not the same, and so every no is not equal. Saying no to a request for something that is trivial, or worse does not complement the your work flow, may be acceptable. It can even earn you points with your team; they appreciate it when someone stands up for them. Choosing this path is fraught with peril but if you view requests in ways that quantify the value proposition, you can give yourself room to maneuver.

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John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach, author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s top 25 leadership experts. John’s new book is Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up (Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website, www.johnbaldoni.com

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