3 Ways to Say “No” to your Boss Using the Word “Yes”

business-man-modified-1241003For most of us, it’s hard to say “no”—if not all of the time, at least in some situations. One such situation is when you think it might harm your career.  Ironically, sometimes, not saying “no” might actually hurt your career more.

For example, it’s important to say no when you are being asked to do something illegal or immoral or something that you are not likely to succeed at.  You might not succeed at a task because you are too busy to do it well or because you aren’t skilled enough to do it well.  In either case, it will reflect badly on you when you fail.

When I tell people they need to be able to say ”no,” they often balk and say that they can’t say “no” to their boss.  Then I say, “How about if you say ‘yes’ to your boss?”  Their eyes light up when I tell them it’s possible to say “yes” and “no” at the same time.  Try the models below.

Model 1: “Yes…  If I do this then I won’t be able to do that…  Which do you think is more important?”


Boss: “Could you take on the budget proposal for the new product we’re developing?”

You: “Yes, absolutely.  I’m currently working on the financial analysis of the old product though.  If I take on the budget for the new product, I won’t be able to finish the analysis as quickly and I had originally estimated.  Which do you think is more important to do first?”

Model 2: “Yes…  If I do it in that time frame, however, it won’t be my best work.  I could offer to do this instead…  What do you think would be best?”


Boss: “Could you write up the 40-page report by tomorrow morning?”

You: “Yes, I’d be happy to.  If I write 40 pages in one day, though, it won’t be polished.  If I had till the end of the week, I’d have time to go over it a second time and proofread it.  What do you think would be best?”

Model 3: “Yes…  Would it be okay to delegate that to …?”


Boss: “Could you manage the offsite planning?”

You: “Yes, I’d be happy to be responsible for it.  Would it be okay to delegate the work to Marnie?  She’s looking for more leadership opportunities and is good with logistics.”

These exact phrases may not fit with your style, but you get the idea.  You accept the work with full disclosure of the sacrifice (not completing other work, not your best quality work, or not you actually doing the work) and give your boss the opportunity to decide what is more important.  If your boss says, for example, that she doesn’t need your best quality on a 40-page report, just a rough draft, or maybe even an outline, then you’ve brought it down to a reasonable task in a short time frame.  If your boss says he needs it to be top quality and would rather wait, then you have turned it into a reasonable time frame to complete the task.

Bosses don’t want their people to fail.  It reflects badly on them too when you fail.  They want the work done and done well and done on time.  You need to speak up when you won’t be able to deliver.  A positive way to do that is to help the boss find solutions, rather than raise obstacles.  Bosses like solutions.  And the bosses who don’t like to hear “no” like to be able to decide what is more important.  If you give them that opportunity using the models above, then you will be able to keep your head above water too.