Say No to Your Boss—And Keep Your Job!

In my last post, No is a Complete Sentence, we talked about the idea that saying “Yes,” to anything you really can’t—or won’t—do is a recipe for failure. So how can you successfully bring that Simple Shift to work with you?

Before we get to the details, let’s make a few assumptions here:

  1. You’re working at a job you (mostly) enjoy and you work for a boss you respect.
  2. You can be counted on to contribute your best (most) every day.
  3. You have the courage to be candid with your boss and colleagues and the willingness to listen to them.

Why these assumptions first?

Because saying “no” to anyone requires some relationship skill and the courage to tell the truth. It’s only in your thriving relationships—when the health of your relationship is more important to you than any discomfort you might feel in saying “No”—that you can be so candid. Only your willingness to say “No” makes your “Yes” so powerful. As a result, you can be counted on to keep your word. You can be trusted because your “Yes” is your bond.

Now think about the personal relationships in which you don’t feel free to admit your limits. They don’t necessarily support you—so it’s a lot easier to say “Yes” when asked for something, just to get the conversation over with. As a result, these relationships are typically not satisfying, so they don’t last very long, do they?

The same is true at work—so before we go any further, it’s important to mention when my upcoming recommendations won’t help you:

  1. You’re working at a job you hate and you don’t respect your boss.
  2. You do your best to put in the minimum effort each day.
  3. You believe that your boss doesn’t want your input—and you find that your relationships at work tend to be mostly adversarial, since everyone is only out to further themselves, with no thought of the cost to other people.

Now that you have those distinctions, there are three simple steps you can take to ensure that this conversation with your boss will be successful. Here’s the good news: you can effectively say “No” without ever using the word. Given that 98% of your success comes from planning the conversation, here are those steps:

  1. Get clear on your objections before you talk with your boss. When asked for anything you know you can’t—or don’t want to—do, start by taking a moment to think about what keeps you from saying yes. Are you already swamped? Do you have conflicting priorities that you won’t be able complete if you take this on? Do you feel that you don’t have the skills to do this new job well? Your clarity helps you to make things clear for your boss.
  2. Next, put yourself in your boss’s shoes. What does he or she really need right now—and how can you help him or her to get it? This is where your great relationship and mutual respect will make all the difference. Since you’re both invested in accomplishing your organizational goals, you’re on the same team. There’s a reason that sports metaphors are used so often in business—in both cases the goal is to win the game. So think about how you can help your boss to win. If you’re already swamped, be clear on what impact this new task will have on your existing work. If you have conflicting priorities, define what they are—so your boss can make the call on which is more important. If you don’t have the necessary skills, be ready to ask for your boss’s support in developing them, without compromising the success of this project.
  3. And finally, have the conversation with your boss at a time when you have his or her undivided attention—your prep with the first two steps means that you won’t need a lot of time. Find out what he or she really needs from you—and make it clear that you’re willing to do your best. Then tell the truth: admit what your challenges are—and what options you’ve already identified. As a result, 98% of the time, you’ll come to a solution that works for you both. And in the 2% of times when you have to do it anyway, your willingness to have this conversation will pave the way for the two of you to address whatever comes next.

Adapted from Dance Into Your Power by Maia Beatty. Love Your Life Press, 2012.

Next week: Business Insights From “Do Re Mi”

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