How to Say No to Your Boss

They say the ability to speak truth to power is a sign of real professional maturity. If that’s the case (and I think it is), then the ultimate is knowing how to say no to your boss, without causing offence.

Because let’s face it, bosses expect us to do what they ask. But that isn’t your job. Your job isn’t to do everything you’re told. Robots are good at that. Your job is to use your time wisely; whether you’re a project manager, an expert, a manager, or a professional focused on delivering what you do.

And, sometimes, being wise means saying no to this, so you can be sure to deliver on that.

But the problem is simple: you didn’t get where you are today by saying no to your boss — quite the opposite. I’ll bet you got where you are by being good at saying yes, and then delivering on that promise.

So, it’s not just a problem of knowing how to say no to your boss. It’s also a challenge to feel good about it.

The Problem with No

The problem with no is that it sounds so… negative. You want to be positive, and yes is far better for that. But saying yes stops working as you rise through your career and have ever more demands on your time.

The Problem with Yes

At some point, two things start to happen:

  1. You find it more and more difficult to deliver on your commitments. At first this will place you under stress. Eventually, you’ll let someone down.
  2. If you do keep up with your promises, of course, people will like you, but they won’t respect you for saying yes to everything. You’ll just become a convenient person to dump work on.

Neither of these is healthy for you or your career.

The Positive Alternative to Yes

You need an empowering alternative to saying yes. Equally, it needs to be a positive alternative to saying no.

No is a negative.  It declines, it refuses, it denies.  Consequently, many of us find it hard to say no.  And many of our bosses also find it a hard word to accept.

So, instead, why not be positive?  Instead of saying no, make a Noble Objection (NO).  You make a Noble Objection when you say NO for a positive, noble reason.

Noble Means Well-Intentioned

Saying no capriciously, mendaciously or just because you don’t want to do something is far from noble. But, when you say NO because your other priorities outweigh this one, because you are not just a doormat, and because you have thought through the consequences, then you are doing the right thing.

So, the first step to successfully say no to your boss is to be clear that you have a good reason, because a Noble Objection is strategic. If you say no in this way, you must do so from a desire to make the best possible use of the time you have available.

You may have too many things to do, and by accepting this request you would place something more important at risk. If this is the case, then saying no is not just the right thing to do, it’s your duty.

Never a Naked NO

You don’t need to apologize for your NO, but you should explain why you chose it. In the science of influence, we learn that the word “because” has great power. When someone says or does something you don’t immediately agree with, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?

Of course, you think, “Why?”

And without a juicy “because” to answer your why, you will never be satisfied.  Now put yourself in your boss’ shoes. You make a Noble Objection and say no. Their first thought is, “Why?”

Therefore, you must always clothe your no with a because. In fact, there are two reasons:

  1. Your because answers their why and makes your NO more palatable.
  2. Perhaps more importantly, what if your reasoning is faulty? What if you misjudged your priorities? Your because gives your boss a chance to assess your thinking and recalibrate if necessary.

Noble Is Open to Persuasion

When you make a Noble Objection, you must remain open to new information that could change your assessment. If your boss gives you a new perspective, you must assess it.

NO is only noble when the reasoning is sound: new information demands new reasoning. Otherwise, you risk creating a didactic no that comes from arrogance. Arrogance is never noble.

Noble means Respectful

How you say NO is important. Your no can’t be noble if you don’t say it with courtesy and respect.

Show respect if you want to retain respect. Be courteous, because that’s what noble people do. Your NO may be the right thing for you, but it may inconvenience your boss. So, don’t make them feel worse than you need to.

That’s another reason why you need to spell out your reasoning. Your boss is entitled an explanation. Any attempt to hide your reasoning is disrespectful.

Noble Does Not Need to Apologize

Making the right choices and doing so respectfully is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You do not need to say sorry for doing the right thing, but Noble people may empathize with others.

On the other hand, you ought to know how much inconvenience your NO may cause. It will help your boss to accept the NO if you show that you understand and care.

So, while you don’t need to apologize for saying no, you may well choose to express your sorrow for the inconvenience it may cause. If nothing else, it shows you’re not just a cold-hearted so-and-so.

Noble is Brief, but not Curt

There’s a balance to strike in how to say no elegantly. Don’t make a big deal of your NO. If you do, it will sound like you have doubts and you open yourself up to attempts at pleading, manipulation or emotional blackmail.

But that doesn’t mean you have to be curt and dismissive. Stop what you are doing, look your boss in the eye, listen to their request, and make your Noble Objection. And, Noble may suggest alternatives.

You may not have time to say yes, but it only takes a moment to be helpful and suggest alternatives. Part of the art of how to say no is to make it feel like you are sort of saying yes! So, give your boss some time. Suggest someone else they could ask. Help them figure out where they can find useful information, resources or tools, and what else they could try.

Noble Is Honest

With all the focus on how to say no, we must remember that you must always be honest about the real reason for saying no. Don’t pretend there are bigger reasons than there are, nor blame your no on other people.

Taking responsibility for your NO – and the consequences of making it –  is the only respectful route.

Your boss may not like it. But, if your no is truly a Noble Objection, they will respect you for making it.

Sometimes You Will Say Yes

If you Say Yes, Say it Positively

Sometimes, of course, you may value the relationship above the cost of the time commitment. As a result, you may choose to say yes. If you do so, say yes with all your heart. There is nothing worse than a grudging and puny yes.

Yes if… How to Say No by Saying Yes

The best managers become adept at saying no to their bosses, sponsors and stakeholders, without using the no word at all. The secret is saying yes if….

And the power behind yes if… is the project manager’s most fundamental asset – the four-way constraint of time-cost-quality-scope.

Because almost every request you’ll receive relates to one of these dimensions. Let me give you an example from a question I received at a seminar.

Example: The Picked On Finance Manager

This chap was getting it in the neck from his CEO. “I need the management accounts more quickly” was becoming a constant refrain. And the Finance Manager’s no wasn’t working.

So, the CEO wanted an improvement to the time dimension. How can the Finance Manager say yes? Here are the three Yes if… answers I counselled him to offer:

Yes, you can have the accounts more quickly, if…

  1. You invest in more admin resources to input the data, or enhanced automation systems to capture data at source. (This one offers cost as the trade-off.)
  2. You are prepared to accept less precise estimates early on, based on the most significant data. We can then update the estimates, using the full data set in the usual time. (This one offers quality as the trade-off.)
  3. You allow us to put the minor divisions and trading groups aside in week one and get you the management accounts for the major divisions more quickly. (This one offers scope as the trade-off.)

Now that you know how to say no, it’s time to say yes…yes to project management software. Whether you say yes or no to your boss, you’re still going to have to get the work done. is a cloud-based software with real-time data and features to help you through every project phase. See why yes is the only answer when it comes to and take this free 30-day trial.


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