COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | STAN SEWITCH

How to say ‘no’ to your boss

“That would be a career-limiting event,” Gerald said, taking another sip of his coffee.

“But you can’t say ‘yes’ to every request, can you?” I asked. “Unless she doesn’t ask for much!”

We were talking about the problem of being in over one’s head. That can happen because the tasks before us are above our skill and experience level. It can also happen because of time limitations.

How many hours do you honestly work every week? I’ll bet it’s less than you think, but that could still add up to a significant amount. What’s too much? In my most manic entrepreneurial years I averaged about 70 hours a week, including weekends and often into the night when everybody else was asleep. That went on for about 10 years. Ah, youth.

These days I think it probably averages 50 to 55 per week, with some at or above 60. Not counting hours spent traveling to and fro.

That’s not bragging, by any means. It’s a confession — 50 hours a week is pretty reasonable, I think; 60, not so healthy on a sustained basis.

And other folks might be fully booked at 40 hours a week. Add kids to the equation and a 40-hour week is really 70.

The point is, we all reach our time limitations, and yet we are asked to do more. The “customers” don’t know our capacity limitations, and sometimes don’t care. But if we assume most people are trying to do the best they can at their work, we must also assume that they will reach an asymptote of productivity, if only because time is limited.

When that happens, people have a hard time saying “no.” I know I do. I mean, people are coming to you, asking for your help or support (and you already have a full plate because you don’t just sit around waiting for someone to ask you to do something before you expend effort). You don’t want to disappoint them; you know you have the skills to help. So you say “yes.”

Then you ignore the fact that what you’ve agreed to is not practically possible, not without changing your priorities. So you unconsciously push down prior commitments to lower rungs on the “get it done” roster.

And when you don’t satisfy the quality and timeliness expectations of those relying on you for the items you put at the bottom, you rationalize away your mistakes with thoughts like, “I can’t believe they asked me to do that! It has no value to the company! Why am I wasting my time on it?” Or you say to yourself, “That was a good enough result,” when in fact it sucks.

You begin to disappoint a growing number of people, and sometimes it’s your boss.

The cycle is self-destructive. If not recognized and addressed, one is in danger of being fired, complaining all the way out that one was treated shabbily.

See, what we don’t realize is that if someone asks us to do something, and we agree, they have every right to expect us to deliver, with no excuses at the last minute, or worse, after the poor result is given. We have the choice whether or not to say “yes” in the first place.

So we need to be able to say “no,” when we face our limits of skill or time or both. However, there are two ways to decline a request. One causes an escalation of antagonism. The other offers a likely path back to cohesive team effort and productivity.

The often-used approach, and the dangerous one, is to resist the assignment with petulance, complaining and blaming. One is never appreciated. One is overloaded while others are not. There’s never enough equipment or funding or workspace. The requestor is ignorant of what is being asked, in terms of what it takes to achieve the objective. It’s the victim’s lament.

This causes the requestor, boss or otherwise, to feel accused, disrespected, unappreciated and defied. This feels to the supervisor like recalcitrance or insubordination. The relationship is pushed further apart. If the requestor is indeed the boss, then mutual distrust and fear can be the resulting emotion for both parties.

The other approach is just that, an approach. One’s response to a request that cannot be fulfilled with a quality result is, “I want to help you. I don’t know how to do that given my current commitments. Perhaps we can look at them and see if you have any ideas on how I could re-prioritize in order to be able to help you.”

This is especially applicable as a response to one’s boss. If it’s a colleague, you could still start here. But they may say, “I don’t know how to prioritize your tasks. That’s up to you. I just need this done by Wednesday.”

Your response would be, “I can’t arbitrarily change my current commitments without talking to the people who are relying on me. I will talk with my supervisor to see what can be done.”

You don’t say “no.” You describe the conditions of a “yes.” You engage the requestor in the process of finding the solution, again especially if he or she is your supervisor.

This approach brings you closer to the same perspective and does less to cause fear in the requestor. It doesn’t eliminate the fear of not getting support, but there is less chance of seeing you as the cause of the fear. He or she begins to see talent and time limitations as their opponent, both of which are “never in abundance,” as our CEO Garry Ridge aptly describes it.


Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@cox.net.

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