How to say 'no' to your boss without looking lazy or incompetent


boss, work, coworker

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Don't say "no" flat out or right away.

When you're invited to a networking event that sounds kind of blah, you can generally respond with, "I'm not interested; thanks" and feel okay about it.


But try this same tactic when your boss presents you with a new assignment and you'll be met with some serious eyebrow raising.

The thing is, even if you're overwhelmed with other projects, or if you're not sure you're the best person to complete this task, you never want to say "no" flat out or right away.

Instead, you'll want to think about how you can say "yes."

According to Michael Kerr, an international business speaker and author of "The Humor Advantage," the question should always be, "How can we" - as in, you and your boss - "say 'yes' together?"


To find out how best to respond in this situation, we consulted Kerr and Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job," on how to say "no" in different scenarios. Read on for their best advice.

If you're already overloaded with other assignments:

"I would be happy to do that project, but what that could mean is that [whatever other project you're working on] will have to be put off until tomorrow, because I was actually going to spend the next three hours finishing that proposal. Would you like me to put that off?"

That's according to Taylor, who said that "most managers are just going to continually feed you more and more material until you say, 'Stop' or, 'If you give me X, then Y is going to suffer.'"

In other words, you need to stay on top of your assignment list, because your boss isn't going to.


Taylor said it's also important to remember that you want to frame your response in terms of doing your best work.

So even if one reason you're worried about taking on another project is that you'll have to stay until 10 p.m. tonight, you should communicate to your boss that what you're really worried about is underperforming on your other assignments.

To your boss, Taylor said, "it's all about the end product."

You can offer to meet with your boss and show them exactly what you're currently working on. Tell them, "I really want to get on the same page as you and make sure I'm doing what it is you want."

Kerr also recommended thanking your boss in this situation (seriously!) - if they're piling on the projects, that means they have confidence in you.


Working on computer

Gleb Leonov/Strelka Institute/Flickr

Consider sending an email to all your bosses to clarify their priorities.

If you have multiple bosses who don't always consult each other when they give out assignments:

"Here are the other things that are on my plate. Perhaps you weren't aware, but I've also been asked to do [this other assignment] from [other boss], and they are doing this as a high priority. So I am going to need some clarification from somebody as to what gets the highest priority."

In this case, Kerr said, it's important to have an "open and honest conversation" with at least one of your managers as soon as possible.

Taylor said sending an email to your primary boss and copying the others works, too.

You can say something like: "I understand that [whatever project your primary boss assigned you] is a priority for us today, so I'll be spending the first part of the week focusing on that. Just to be on the same page, it looks like the latter part of the week, I'll be working on the XYZ project with John and Jim. If there's anything else I should be working on or focusing on this week, please keep me informed."


If you don't think you have the right skill set to complete the assignment:

"I would love to be able to add this to my work in the future, but right now I don't feel like I'm equipped enough to do [this assignment]. I don't have the proper training. Could we look at getting some training for me this year? Until I get the training, could I suggest that [one of your coworkers] handle it this time? Because I know he's well-versed in [whatever area]."

Kerr emphasized that you'll want to come from a solution mindset. Instead of simply refusing the assignment, come up with a way to solve it - like getting training.

You can even propose that you shadow the coworker who's more skilled in the particular area, so you learn what to do for next time.

"Express that sentiment, 'I want to do it, but I want to do it right,'" Kerr said.


If you're not feeling confident that you could do a good job on this assignment - a situation Kerr said comes up fairly often in the workplace - he recommended telling your boss exactly that.

Ask your boss if they can offer any help or suggestions. "Most bosses will respect you for opening up like that," he said.

Ultimately, Taylor said, "people who can set reasonable boundaries with their boss can be more well-respected in the eyes of their boss."

Someone who stays late every night to complete 16 different projects because they aren't able to prioritize isn't necessarily an effective employee.

On the other hand, someone who leaves at a reasonable hour because they're organized and know what needs to get done when probably is. As Taylor said, "They just have their act together."


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