How to say ‘No’ to your boss and make it sound like a ‘Yes’

For anyone who has ever experienced a toddler in full meltdown mode, I’m sure the above image sends shivers down your spine.  It certainly grabbed my attention and made me laugh.  All the children in our extended family are now well and truly past that stage.  It did make me think about a topic that’s been coming up with my clients recently.  How do you say ‘No’ to your boss and avoid being labelled as ‘the problem child’?  Saying ‘No’ certainly needs to be handled the right way.  It’s a skill that we must learn to be able to manage up successfully and continue on our desired career paths.  So what’s the best approach for this delicate area?  Here are my suggestions for ensuring you do this tactfully, maintaining credibility and keeping your place in the ‘inner circle’.

Offer another solution

Discuss other perspectives and options with your boss and ideally offer an alternative solution. In my experience, most bosses are happy to consider other approaches providing they don’t have to do the problem-solving.  The solution must also result in the desired outcome. This is also a great way to show initiative and that you are capable of creating your own solutions. Employees placing their attention on the solution also demonstrate that they understand what the priorities of the organisation are and are aligned with making these become a reality. This approach usually avoids resistance, conflict and a difficult conversation.

Clarify your boundaries

Design and get an agreement in relation to your boundaries at the start of any new working relationship. It’s much easier to design ‘how we’re going to work together’ in the beginning than trying to introduce something further down the line. To do this effectively you must have clarity on what your own boundaries are and be able to communicate and work with your boss to agree on them in a way that means both of you are happy.  Having your boundaries clarified and agreed up front means that you’ll likely avoid having to say ‘No’ in most scenarios.  See separate blog post on creating boundaries.  


Ask yourself what would it take to be able to meet the ask of your boss by putting yourself in their shoes. What would need to be freed up or moved elsewhere for you to have space and time needed to complete the new task? What will the impact of doing that be? Be prepared to have a conversation with your boss about ‘what matters most’ and be ready to compromise.

Examine the situation from your boss’s perspective. What’s in it for your boss, what’s important about the new task or objective? Where does this fall in relation to the other priorities that have been set out in terms of strategy? This will help you to respond in a way that shows you are clear what is important and that you understand their perspective. Also, explore what the impact would be if this particular activity or project wasn’t prioritised. The next step would be to determine how this impact could be mitigated.

Choose your moment wisely

Team members should assess the situation before offering up a ‘no’.  Is now the best time politically given what’s been going on around them?  An employee who has just had a disagreement with the boss, or has been given some feedback about areas to improve, may decide to wait for a better time to say no.


If you are leading a team, how might someone else become part of the solution? This could be a perfect time to allow others the chance to shine and get some exposure. What better way to provide a development opportunity to the rising stars in your own team. A potential win-win for everyone.

Discuss the priorities and impact

You could ask your boss to help you prioritise which has the benefit of providing visibility into what you have on your plate. My recommendation is to tread carefully with this one as it may also suggest that you are unable to prioritise on your own and find a solution by yourself. A more effective approach may be to reprioritise yourself and let your boss know that you have some suggestions on how to move things around in order to ensure this important activity gets priority. It allows for input from your boss without simply asking for a solution.

The Counter Offer

Look for and suggest other ways you can assist with the task. Along the lines of, “I can’t do what you’re asking because …., however, here is what I can do …..”

Be Assertive

Aim to be neutral in your response whilst being clear and assertive. If it really is a ‘no’, then poor body language and tone may suggest that there is some wiggle room with your response which could invite negotiation. Saying no should invite respect. Practice what you are going to say so that when you do say it for real it’s said with grace and clarity.  Remember you are not saying no to the person, just the request.

“Think of all the people who have to say no for a living — lawyers, cops, referees, judges,” ……“They do it with dignity. They own what they’re saying. And they are accountable for it regardless of strong feelings on both sides.” (see:

Make sure that ‘no’ is the right response

There is an interesting guide to assessing whether you should say no in this article:

  • Draw up a list of your tasks and order them by priority and deadline.
  • Sketch out how long each one is likely to take, and determine whether there is any chance that you could complete the new task as well.
  • Make a neat and clear document which you can use when you talk to your boss.
  • This is a way of “showing” your boss that you can’t do what they ask, rather than “telling”.


To access my free guide to work-life balance by improving your time management click below:

Photo credit: pedrosimoes7 via Visual hunt / CC BY

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top