How to Say “No” to Your Boss

Do you ever feel like you have too much on your plate at work? Do you find yourself trying to meet a tight deadline only for your boss to give you another high-priority assignment? The key to success within the workplace is to prioritize. Morten Hansen, author of GREAT AT WORK, shares his tips for how to say “no” to your boss.

[One] tactic for doing less and obsessing is to manage your boss’s expectations around your scope of work. A full 24 percent of people in our study blamed their inability to focus on their boss’s lack of direction or a broader organizational complexity in their company. In general, it’s far easier to embrace “do less, then obsess” if your boss is practicing it, too. Many top performers in our study reported having bosses who gave them clear direction, set specific goals, and had few priorities.

So what should you do if you work for a do-more boss? You aren’t as powerless as you might think; it is possible to manage up and say “no.”36 James, a junior management consultant in our study, told me of one occasion when a partner asked him to help with a sales pitch.37 “I was already working 100 percent on a really important merger project with an upcoming deadline,” James said. He told this partner that he would be happy to help, but he couldn’t cover both the sales pitch and the merger project. Which should he prioritize?

Great at Work

Great at Work

by Morten Hansen

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“Can’t you do both?” the partner asked.

“Not if you want excellent work,” James replied. “The merger project requires all my attention for the next three weeks, and there is no slack in the schedule. The key is to deliver the best quality, so we will need some more people on the merger project if you want me to help with the sales bid.”

James expected a lashing from the partner, who was known for calling people “wimps.” Instead the partner nodded. “I guess you’re right.” James suggested that the partner ask a colleague who was coming off another project.

Make clear to your boss that you’re not trying to slack off. You’re prioritizing because you want to dedicate all your effort to excelling in a few key areas. Ask if your boss would like you to reprioritize. Put the decision back on your boss’s shoulders. You want to prevent your boss from forcing you into the “do more, then stress” category, since your performance will be much better in the “do less, then obsess” approach. Your boss will (or should) appreciate that.

It’s important to have a balanced work and personal life.

Excerpted from Great at Work by Morten Hansen. Copyright © 2018 by Moreten Hansen. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved

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