The best way to tell your boss NO without saying no

‘No’ presented in another way will electrify your career


Managers will always assign impossible tasks. It’s one of those facts of life like toast always landing butter side down (no matter what physicists say). You, the experienced team player who have learned to survive life in the trenches can recognize immediately how idiotic, short-sided and foolish your boss’ ideas can sometimes be.

But how do you say: “No. I’m not going to do that because it’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard and it’s going to cost us customers, revenue and make me look bad,” in a way that won’t get you fired? There is a trick to it. And, if you do it right, you might even get a promotion from always saying ‘no’.

First, let’s establish when saying ‘no’ is the heroic choice and when it’s career suicide.

Why to say ‘No’

Save your job: That new project you were just handed looks tailor made to blow up in your face. You can see “set up for failure” written all over it in gothic lettering. When it fails, everyone above you will seek out a scapegoat and guess who is going to get it in the neck. You.

Make your boss look good: Helping your manager achieve the impossible not only makes them look good, it’s good for your career as well. They move up (either in reputation or promotion) and you move up too. Finding a way to make your boss look good is one of those ninja techniques for greasing the path to success. And providing good feedback, even saying ‘no’, is key to helping them succeed.

Establish a reputation as a qualified sounding board: Instead of immediately balking at the idiotic task that your boss just assigned, consider all the aspects. How did he come up with this idea? Did he pass it to you without thinking it through himself? Do any of the “When to say no” scenarios listed below apply? If your boss knows something that you don’t, find out what it is. By taking the time to consider all the angles and asking appropriate questions, you become a valuable sounding board. One day you might even hear your boss’ boss ask “what does [insert your name here] think?”

When to say ‘No’

You have spotted the fatal flaw: Sometimes action precedes thought and, in the haste to react quickly, an important fact is overlooked by everyone except you. Don’t be a sheep and assume that everyone above and around you knows something that you don’t.

Not enough time or resources: Project managers end up in this situation all the time and the best at their craft deftly deal with the problem so that it’s just another step in the process. Establish for yourself what you can and can’t accomplish in a given time based on fact, not just what you think or feel. When you are able to clearly demonstrate that you won’t have enough time or assistance from team members to complete an assignment, it’s a bad idea to simply keep your head down and become the inevitable point of failure.

You have more up-to-date information: I wish I had a dollar for every time that I was asked to do something mega-super-ultra important that was clearly based on outdated information. Maybe I had just met with the client and they had changed their mind or maybe Google just announced an update to one of their critical algorithms completely out of the blue (again). If you know or suspect something that would radically impact a project or request you have just been asked to complete, push back. Robotically following orders just because “my boss told me to” is going to keep you in that crappy office chair that no one else wants.

When not to say ‘No’

You just don’t want to: We have all been there. It’s Friday at 4pm and you really wanted to sneak out early today and this new request is going to take at least an hour. You know it’s important to your boss but, hey, she can’t have everything. The choice here is to knuckle down and get it done or be honest and ask if there is any way you can tackle it first thing Monday morning. Use your best common sense judgement. If your boss often passes along work without clarifying the priority, then asking to do it on Monday is no big deal. If your boss is a big stress ball and is making it very clear that she needs it done NOW, then chalk it up to life in the trenches and get it done quickly so you might still get out of the office near a normal time.

You feel too busy: Man, you feel slammed. You couldn’t possibly take on one more task. How dare your boss add this new project to your list when you haven’t even completed the first one yet. Unfortunately, feeling overburdened is a common condition in a world of tight budgets and deadlines based on off-the-cuff sales promises. If you just feel too busy then you shouldn’t say no. Notice that it’s completely different from actually not having enough time and no one to help. Refer back to “Not enough time or resources.”

You don’t have an alternative suggestion: If a request seems misguided or just plane dumb, you might be 100% right. However, if you don’t have an alternative suggestion, you don’t have a choice in the matter. Simply saying ‘no’ is going to steer your career down a path with a twelve story cliff at the end. Unless you’ve got a better idea, turn around, roll your eyes and get back to work.

“Felicia, this project really made me consider how we are implementing this solution and I’d like to propose that we…”

How to say ‘No’

Saying ‘no’ to your boss is an artform based on eliminating the word itself from your vocabulary. Instead, you are going to establish a reputation of never saying ‘no’ while still producing a similar result. Follow these three steps and you will never need to say the word ‘no’ again.

Step 1: Be a mind reader

Somewhere, someone rubbed at least two brain cells together to come up with the seemingly asinine idea that dropped in your lap. I know that it can be painful to think down to the level of those above you when it is completely obvious that they know significantly less about how everything works than you do. But, by considering how this idea was concocted in the first place, you will intuit the dark forces driving it. Once you understand the goal behind project or task and how some pointy-haired tie rack in a corner office assembled the somewhat logical conclusions that led to it, your next steps will be easy.

Step 2: Determine the true scope and importance

We’ve all had bosses who treat every project as if life itself depends on its success. Then there are the bosses who describe everything as “easy” and begin all instructions with “just simply…”. Never allow those verbal tricks to influence your estimation of a project’s true size and gravity. Dig into the details of the project itself and consider what you discovered while reading your boss’ mind in step 1.

Establish the facts by listing out everything required to complete the project or task. Is it really as bad as your gut is telling you? Brainstorm ways to move tasks around based on what might be able to slide and what must be done right away. Flag anything that may end up being cancelled, delayed by others or the requestor will simply lose interest. Maybe your can get this done on time and you won’t need to say ‘no’ or perhaps it’s not really as important as you were led to believe. It’s amazing how many requests that seemed red hot on Monday end up as a ‘whenever you can get it done’ request by Wednesday.

Step 3: Suggest alternatives

In the “when to say no” section, I listed three general situations when you really should find a way to say ‘no’ without saying the word. Using the facts from steps 1 and 2, you may find that this project falls into one or all of those situations.

If there is a fatal flaw in the reasoning behind the assignment, write up your own alternative (and more accurate) reasoning. If the task is simply too large for the time allocated or there just aren’t enough hands, either the scope or timeline needs to change to avoid catastrophe. If there is new information that suddenly makes the work pointless or insufficient, then be prepared to inform your boss with all relevant details and your interpretation. However, you need to reply with more than just your arguments against it, your request for more resources or with your golden nuggets of new information. You need to present alternatives.

Your alternative plans or suggestions are what make your ‘no’ not a ‘no’. Replying with “Felicia, this project really made me consider how we are implementing this solution and I’d like to propose that we…” is far better than replying with “Felicia, I can’t do this because… [you are wrong][we can’t do 60 hours of work in three days][you are an ignorant cow]”.

Always propose at least one alternative suggestion or plan adjustment with your reply. Even if your suggestions all have a fatal flaw, it will open up a conversation about how to achieve the ultimate goal in a different way. Your manager (and their bosses) always want to see a way forward, not receive a list of roadblocks. When presented in the right way, saying ‘no’ can actually come across and multiple ways of saying ‘yes’.