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How to say no to your boss

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
Read more about our editorial process.

Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

Reviewed by Jessica Roper, MBA, Director of Career Services

At a glance

  • Fear of appearing incompetent or recalcitrant often deters people from saying no in the workplace.
  • It’s OK to tell your boss no, but you should have a rationale and context for your response.
  • Three criteria to evaluate when deciding whether to decline a project are your bandwidth, how much value you can add and whether the project can help you grow your skill set.
  • Complement your career strategy with resources and tools like resumé templates, cover letter samples and more on University of Phoenix’s Job Resources page

This article was updated on December 4, 2023.

“I wouldn’t say no to my boss.”

This statement from Ricklyn Woods, a career advisor at University of Phoenix, may seem counterintuitive in this article, but her point underscores an important reminder about saying no in the workplace: Sometimes it’s necessary, sometimes it’s not, but context is always important. Woods isn’t saying she would never decline a project or task. She’s saying that phrasing is as important as reasoning. 

Portrait of Ricklyn Woods

“I would never want anybody to say no just for the sake of saying no,” Woods explains. “You have to really have some clear reason and rationale for why you are arriving at no, and then you’re advocating for yourself.”

So, how do you decide when a request warrants a no? And how can you say no in a way that won’t get you fired? It boils down to knowing yourself — and knowing what to say.

Why people say yes when they wish they could say no

Everyone’s regretted saying yes at least once. This can be frustrating enough in private life (like when you get roped into cutting out 120 paper hearts for your child’s second-grade Valentine’s Day party), but the situation is even trickier at work. There, the power dynamics of manager and employee can make saying no feel almost impossible.

Fear is at the root of a lot of decisions we make,” Woods says. Specifically, employees may be afraid of:

  • Appearing incompetent (Will my manager think I can’t handle my job?)
  • Negative consequences (Will I get a poor performance review or even lose my job?)
  • Poor public perception (Will others think I’m not a team player?)
  • Missing out on an opportunity (What if someone else says yes and does a great job and makes me look bad?)

“A lot of people don’t think that no is even an option,” Woods says. “But you always have a choice.”

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How to decide when to say yes or no

Say you get pegged to lead a project that will involve long hours and learning new skills but that will look good to management (and on your resumé).

Or maybe your team has been tasked with overseeing a related project, and your role involves monotonous duties that fall outside your job description but that will last only a limited time.

Or perhaps team leads from different departments turn to you every time they have a job or task that no one else has time to do.

What’s an employee to do?

Much like the situations outlined above, deciding when to accept or decline an assignment boils down to your answers to three questions:

  1. Do you have the bandwidth?
  2. Can you add value to the project?
  3. Will the project help you in your career goals?

“It’s probably more of a gut feeling than a hard-and-fast checklist, but I do think it does depend on how successful you will be overall by contributing,” Woods says.

One way to assess whether you should accept is through visualization. Imagine you’re already one week into whatever project is being offered. Do you feel energized, challenged and engaged? Or do you feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed?

One caveat to this exercise is knowing when to push yourself. Sometimes a new task can seem overwhelming because it requires you to learn or grow in some way. Often those opportunities are worth taking, even if they make you uncomfortable. But when something promises to drain your time and energy without providing much in the way of return, whether in terms of career or skills, it may be time to pass.

The other component to this is your skills. Ask yourself if you have expertise that makes you a natural choice for the task or if the job lies outside your specialization (or even below your skill level). That can also help guide your decision.

“If you feel like you’ve checked the boxes, and you don’t really have anything else to accomplish or prove, then that’s a good time to say no and pass it to someone else,” Woods says.

How to say no

Sometimes, it’s not what you say but how you say it that counts. Saying no to your manager is one of those times.

Here’s how to let the boss down gently.

When it’s an issue of bandwidth

If you can’t take on a project because you’re too busy, be prepared to explain in detail what’s on your plate.

“You definitely want to be able to support [that reason] by being able to share where your time is being spent,” Woods says.

Try something along the lines of: “That sounds like a great project, and I’d love to work on it. However, I’m currently working on X, Y and Z, which are due by such-and-such date. With those deadlines on the horizon, I won’t be able to give this project the attention and energy it deserves.”

According to Woods, this response opens the door to another benefit: “When you say no in that way, you’re also giving your boss the opportunity to come back and maybe help you prioritize differently.”

When it’s an issue of expertise

Lacking the right skills for a project is a complicated issue. On the one hand, you might be setting yourself up for failure. On the other, you might step aside only to watch a colleague shine where you couldn’t. (Ouch.) Neither of these is a comfortable situation.

The good news? There’s value in sometimes getting uncomfortable. Maybe your situation is an opportunity to upskill and grow. Maybe it’s a chance to be vulnerable by admitting you don’t have the right skills for the task. Being able to admit to the latter speaks to an innate confidence that you have other skills that make you valuable.

When you do have to decline because someone could do a better job than you, be graceful about it. Some good ways to say no are:

  • “Thank you for thinking of me for this project. I really appreciate that, but it would call for a skill set that isn’t my strong suit.”
  • “I’m not sure I’m the right person for that assignment based on my skill set.”
  • “I enjoy contributing to X much more than I do to Y. I’m happy to contribute, and X is a better area for me to do so and excel.”

When you feel the project is too easy

Being asked to do something that’s below your skill level can be awkward for a number of reasons, not least of which involve ego and interest. It’s hard to get excited about data entry, for example, if you haven’t done that for five years.

If the request is short term and rooted in an all-hands-on-deck sort of situation, it’s wise to roll up your sleeves and dive in, Woods says. But it’s also an opportunity to clarify your goals and responsibilities.

“For most positions, we all have to be willing to do some tasks that we don’t necessarily want to do,” Woods says.

It’s also OK, she explains, to say something like:

  • “I understand that this needs to be done. I haven’t had to do that in a while, especially since I’ve been in this new role. It’s not the most fun thing for me to do, but I’m happy to help this time. I just want to make sure you understand this isn’t really what I see myself doing at this level in my career.”
  • “If I take on this project, I’m not going to feel especially good about the work that I’m doing. I’m happy to pitch in for now, but it’s important to me to keep growing in my role and developing new skills.”

When a no might turn into a yes

What these examples have in common is that they hinge on honest and transparent communication. If you’re honestly trying to do your best work in your role and add value for your employer, and if your employer is genuinely trying to offer you opportunities to grow, then you can usually arrive at a mutually beneficial situation.

You might even change your mind. Woods has initially declined a project only to discuss it and change her mind after realizing that she could bring value to the task or that the task played a bigger role in her department’s collective success than she initially realized.

Advantages of saying no

Saying no is like exercising a muscle. Some people go to the “no” gym daily; others think about it on the way to the “yes” store for doughnuts.

Like physical exercise, however, saying no judiciously and graciously can help you become a stronger communicator. It can make you feel more empowered as an employee and a person. You learn to set and maintain boundaries, and you become more comfortable in uncomfortable situations (which means you are less likely to say yes and regret it later).

“A lot of times people don’t say no because they’re avoiding what could be a difficult situation,” Woods says. Don’t avoid it. Be honest and transparent instead.

Lay the groundwork for an effective no

If you’re just getting started in a new job — or with a new outlook on the power of no — Woods has one more tip to consider. Try asking your manager how you can best have that tough conversation.

Woods suggests the following prompt: “I’m curious: If you ever asked me to do something that I wasn’t comfortable doing or didn’t feel I had a strong enough skill set to do, how could I let you know? What would work best for you?”

Honesty and transparent conversation, after all, is the cornerstone of an effective no. It also just happens to be pretty effective at building trust and a positive working relationship. And that’s something you can enthusiastically say yes to.

 

Portrait of Elizabeth Exline

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

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