5 Ways To Tell Your Boss No Without Actually Saying No

Of course you want to look like a team player, but saying “yes” all the time can give you a reputation as a doormat.

5 Ways To Tell Your Boss No Without Actually Saying No
[Photo: Todd Warnock/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images]

Managers often ask us to do things we don’t want to: work late, work on a weekend, attend a conference the same weekend we have concert tickets, help a difficult colleague finish a project. While it’s important to be a team player, it’s equally important to stay happy at work.


In fact, it might even be good for your career to occasionally say no, says Suz O’Donnell, founder and CEO of Thrivatize LLC. “You may worry a boss may be mad if you don’t stay late or work over the weekends, but at the end of the day, you are much more innovative and productive when you’ve had some time to relax,” she says.

Most employees worry that setting boundaries gives the impression that they aren’t a dedicated worker, but in reality the opposite is true, O’Donnell says. She recalls a coworker who consistently worked extra hours because he didn’t have pressing weekend plans and it made him feel important. However, his reputation in the office didn’t improve because he worked every weekend. “It made him seem less powerful and more like someone people could push around,” O’Donnell says. In fact, she says, everyone on the team who consistently declined weekend work was promoted, while the coworker who repeatedly put in extra hours didn’t get a promotion. Perhaps, she says, it was because those who took a break came back to work refreshed and ready to produce.

It’s never easy to say no to your boss, but here are five ways to decline work without actually using the word “no.”

Say “Yes, And . . . “

When your boss insists you stay late to finish a report, acknowledge the request, but set boundaries for completing the work, says executive coach Tammy Gooler Loeb. Instead of saying to your boss, “No, but . . . ” trying saying, “Yes, and . . . ” For instance, try saying, “Yes, and I have I commitment tonight that I cannot break. What time do you need it by?” Your boss will know that you heard them and that you’re prepared to help, she says.

Asking for clarification about the deadline can help you understand the urgency of the request and determine if there is a way to empathize and express shared concern, as well as offer an alternative timeline that doesn’t interfere with your plans, says Danielle Beauparlant Moser, talent management principal and practice leader at bltCareers.

Say Yes To Part Of The Request

Maybe your boss is asking to you help with a high-profile project that you’re interested in participating in but don’t want to lead. Then offer to help with a part of the project that you know you can complete within your time constraints, says Michele Mavi, director of recruiting at Atrium Staffing. Mavi recommends saying, “I don’t think I’m the best person at the moment to take on the whole thing because I have [name your other project] taking up all of my attention. However, I’m confident I can analyze the data in a timely fashion if someone else writes the report.”


Reframe The Request

When you decline a request, reframe the situation and give your manager some additional perspective, says Robin Tingley, author of 10 Essentials for the Motivated Millennial: A Guide to High Performance for New Grads and Career Starters. She suggests breaking your response into three parts by first acknowledging that the request is a priority by saying, “I understand it’s important to meet our deadline.” Then provide your boss some perspective by saying, “I’ve had a prior commitment booked now for several weeks, and it’s important to me that I attend my family reunion.” Finally, decide whether you will offer to change your plans (“Does it warrant me cancelling my plans?”), come in early on Monday morning (“Can we tackle this if I come in early Monday?”) or provide help ahead of time so your colleagues can handle it in your absence (“What can I do to help before I leave?”), and let your manager know which you are willing to do.

Offer An Alternative

Be clear and concise about what you’re declining to do, and why you’re saying no while also providing a different solution to the problem, says Phyllis Reagin Hughes, managing partner and executive coach at CSRH Consulting, LLC. For instance say, “I’m unable to stay late tonight to work on this project because I must pick up my child from daycare. However, I will speak to Vanessa and see if she is able to assist you.” However, don’t apologize or go overboard with excuses, says Tracey Adams, PhD, founder of ThriveOn Seminars. “State with conviction that you already have a conflict, but then add what you can provide, so the boss hears what you can do,” she says.

Enlist A Coworker, But Take Responsibility

When your manager asks you to take on a task, what they’re really asking you to do is take responsibility for getting it done, says Jill Santopietro Panall, owner of 21Oak HR Consulting. “Maybe it’s not you who actually has to do it,” she says, “as long as you arrange to have it done.” For instance, say to your boss, “If Randy can work on a draft tonight, I’ll polish it for you tomorrow and have it to you by the deadline.” Just be sure to give your coworker due credit, Panall says, and perhaps offer to buy them a drink or small gift to thank them for their help, especially if they stayed at work while you went to a concert or on vacation.


About the author

Lisa Rabasca Roepe writes about women in the workplace, parenting, and food and drink. Her articles have appeared in Daily Worth, Men's Journal, Eater, SheKnows, and Yahoo Parenting.