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How to Say ‘No’ to Your Manager

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Knowing that I’ve been in managerial and director-level positions for the past several years, a good friend of mine–Terri–approached me with the following question: “How do I push back on my boss, who is giving me extra responsibilities and travel, without jeopardizing my professional future?”

Terri was determined to advance in her career, and her manager recognized this as well. However, her manager began to push her by giving her opportunities to advance at a time that wasn’t ideal for her and her husband’s growing family. Though Terri wanted to continue advancing, she wanted to first focus on family.

While Terri came to me because I could provide a managerial perspective, I was also able to relate to her. The year prior, my husband and I went through a number of experiences, both overwhelming and wonderful, that caused me to have to turn down responsibilities at work, even though my goal was to continue advancing at a rapid pace:

  • We got married and went on a beautiful honeymoon to Italy (May 2010).
  • We returned from our honeymoon to a home that had burned to the ground in a five-alarm fire (May 2010).
  • We had to move into temporary housing… twice (June 2010, October 2010).
  • We built and moved into a new home (January 2011).
  • We had our first child (August 2011).

In just 15 months, I had gone from having no home or possessions to having a beautiful baby in my arms. These events made me feel like my life was part of a movie, but I realized that I needed to remain even, professional, and motivated when it came to work. Having both perspectives helped me provide the right advice to Terri. Here is how to say “no” to your boss:

The best option is to be honest, upfront, and clear. By holding your concerns in and potentially jeopardizing your and family’s quality of life, you could end up with a situation that erupts at work in ways you really don’t want. Remember, if you aren’t happy in your home life, it’s extremely difficult to be happy in all other areas of your life.

I encourage you to think about this as the most professional approach, and not as though you are jeopardizing your career. It would be unprofessional of you to take on too much and not be able to complete it successfully or on time, so you are actually doing right by your manager and company by being upfront with what you can and can’t handle.

I recommend that you approach the conversation with your manager in the following ways:

  1. Schedule a formal meeting with your manager for 60 minutes, early in the morning. This will ensure that you have her full attention, in private, and before the headaches of the day begin. Hopefully, there will be nothing to distract your manager by scheduling in this way.
  2. Prepare your talking points in advance of the meeting and practice saying them out loud. This will improve your confidence and allow you to communicate calmly rather than nervously. Your manager will take on the tone and behavior that you bring to this meeting.
  3. Your talking points should include strategic topics, such as:
    • your appreciation for your manager’s confidence in you,
    • your excitement in advancing in the department and/or company,
    • your honest reason as to why you are not in the best place to take on additional work at this point in time (without getting into excessive detail) because it would interfere with the high quality of your existing work,
    • how you would like to take on more in smaller ways (e.g., lead an additional meeting, take on just one new project instead of five, have your manager mentor and coach you, delegate some of your responsibilities to other team members, etc.), and
    • you would appreciate their continued support until you are ready to truly take the next step towards advancement.

By having a well-planned discussion and being forthright about your ability to take on more for advancement, you will set a great impression that you are honest and confident, can set boundaries for yourself, and are a strong planner. Learning how to say “no” to your manager–out of necessity and in moderation–is essential in your rise to the top. If you are unable to produce quality work because you are taking on too much (or your manager is asking too much of you), then you can’t expect to be anything but run down, stressed to the max, and frazzled. Take control of your career and your life by saying “no” to some things rather than “yes” to everything.

Inspirational Challenge! If you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and frazzled because your workload is so excessive, consider what this is doing to your quality of work and ability to work professionally with others. By learning how to say “no” to additional requests for your time, or by learning how to delegate to others, you are doing what is professionally appropriate and correct. Don’t jeopardize the quality of the work you produce or the impression you give off. Be and feel in control so you can take your career to the next level.


#Managing Up #Saying No Career Advice
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I think whenever you're worried about taking more on, you have to bring solutions to the table as well on how you prioritize and how they (your manager) can help lead you to do that.

We heard a wonderful conversation at HBS this weekend about never saying no to a promotion or bigger job just because you're scared you can't handle it. Trust yourself! You can do more than you think you can.

Good points, Maxie! I agree with that wholeheartedly: "Here's what I CAN do... Here's a NEW option... Here's ANOTHER idea..." You can absolutely turn it around in your favor. :) Laying out expectations plus new ideas/solutions is key.

Carly Heitlinger
Carly Heitlinger

I would also argue that sometimes your boss DOES know how much you can handle. Recently, I was convinced that I absolutely could not handle any more added responsibilities. But I had a great support team at work believing in me when I didn't believe in myself. Two weeks later and I'm so proud that I actually could do it.

Sometimes you do need that push, but (of course) there are times when new "life stages" may not be conducive to the extra work.

Carly, you are right on the money! Early in my consulting career, I had the opportunity to take on a Project Manager role for a huge project ($50Million). I was scared out of my pants - but my manager/mentor encouraged me to try, and to try hard! It took my career to a new level and opened up so many doors. Had she not pushed me, I wouldn't be where I am today.

One of my inspirational challenges is to redirect energy: if you feel scared to do something, turn that into excitement! You're scared because it's something you've never done before, so get excited because it's something you now have the chance to conquer and excel at!

This is a great article! But how do you say no when you have too many people asking too much of you?

I'm literally at the bottom of the totem pole at my office, and people who I don't actually report to are constantly asking for my help. And as the executive assistant, I'm often getting ASAP requests from the VPs, which makes it nearly impossible to prioritize my tasks.

And both my manager and the other admin assistant are already doing the work of multiple people, so I can't ask anyone for help. Eek!!

Hi Julia! This is quite interesting that you bring this up, because this is a situation I'm currently helping with in my company's very own office! We have a great team member who began as an administrative assistant but has expressed interest in growing - so she has taken on new marketing- and HR-related tasks, but is then continuing to be tasked with administrative responsibilities. She has expressed to me that she is unable to excel anywhere because she is pulled in so many directions. We completed the following exercises to help with this:

1. We first analyzed what she was spending her time on. Every day, for two weeks, we categorized her tasks and wrote down how much time she spent them. This helped us understand what was good or inefficient time spent.

2. Then, each day, she created a list that had three categories: PRIORITY, URGENT, and EVERYTHING ELSE. Those things that were a priority (really a priority) :) or urgent were done first... everything else, she set her own timeline for (e.g., "Ms. So & So, I will complete this task by Friday of this week...).

After completing this experiment (which is actually ongoing right now), we will sit down together and make a plan, which will include communicating to those who request an inefficient use of her time. The plan and communication must come from both YOU and your director/manager.

Oh, another thing that is SO important... YOU must have the ability to push back, even if it is on a VP. Think about it like this: if you take on too much, your quality of work suffers. And that's not good for anyone! So, you must find ways to comfortably say: "I'm sorry, Mrs. VP, but I have some other priority tasks on my plate that I've already committed to. If I take this one, the earliest I can get back to you on this is Day X of this week/next week. What do you think?"

Check out this article I just wrote on this very topic!

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