Nobody wants to be a yes-man (or woman), but that doesn’t make it any easier to say no to your boss. Whether you’re being asked to increase your workload, take on a task that you believe is a bad idea, or work the weekend, how do you tactfully decline?
“People have a hard time saying ‘no’––period––and when you introduce power, it gets exponentially worse,” says Joseph Grenny, coauthor of Crucial Conversations.
Yet, good bosses appreciate employees who have the confidence to say no, says workplace communications consultant Diane Amundson. “Most say they’re willing to listen to sound reasoning to find a solution,” she says. “It’s all about how you frame and phrase it.”
Instead of declining the request and walking away, Grenny and Amundson offer seven tips for delivering an effective, non-polarizing “no”:
Begin by acknowledging that the decision is ultimately your boss’s, says Grenny. “Clarify that by saying, ‘I have strong opinions on what is the right answer but I understand this is your call,’” he says. “Otherwise the subject can become a power struggle.”
Amundson says sometimes a “no” is a battle not a war, and you need to know the difference. “Ask yourself what the worst outcome may be from saying ‘no’ and write this down,” she suggests. “Decide which appears to have the biggest impact on your current workload and future with the company.”
Members of the military say to salute the flag before you disagree with a senior officer, says Grenny. The same is true in business. Keep in mind that your ultimate goal is the same: to further the company.
“Your mutual higher purpose is to serve, and your job is to accomplish goals,” he says. “It’s not who is right, it’s what is right.”
People are more open to having someone disagree with them if they feel deeply understood, says Grenny.
“Listen to your boss’s arguments and concerns before voicing your own,” he says. “She will feel much less defensive if she felt heard. If you aren’t willing to change your opinion, don’t expect your boss to change hers.”
Amundson agrees: “You can say, ‘I understand your perspective, and here’s another way to think about the situation,’” she says. “If you have sound reasoning and honored their idea, your boss will be more open to listening.”
People often believe if their boss trusted them, they’d be willing to take a chance and follow their suggestion, but you shouldn’t make a disagreement personal when it doesn’t need to be, says Grenny.
Instead, draw power from the facts. After you’ve acknowledged the importance of the request, share how the new task might impact other projects. For example, it might take away needed resources or burden your workload. Then ask for a solution.
“Is there something your boss could take off your plate to allow you the time to take on this project?” asks Amundson.
Too often we get into a debate about conclusions, says Grenny. “If you want to say ‘no,’ and your boss wants you to say ‘yes,’ each of you has information that differs,” he says. Start by exposing where your facts are thin.
“Acknowledge what you know to be true and tell your boss how it caused your conclusion,” he says. “Ask how your boss came to her conclusion. If you’re simply in a no-yes argument, you’re arguing conclusions not facts.”
When the requests are about your time, Amundson says it’s helpful to establish rules early on.
“If you don’t want to be on call during weekends or holidays, make this clear in the beginning where there is more leeway and where it’s black and white,” she says. Then saying “no” won’t come as a surprise.
What has happened in the office right before this request? Amundson says it might impact your ability to say 2no.”
“If you have just received a poor work evaluation or have said ‘no’ recently to your boss, perhaps it’s not the best time to buck the system,” she says. “If your past performance has been praised and valued, you have more leeway.”