How to say ‘no’ to your managers (without damaging your career)
22 February 2021
In order to have control of your career and how you spend your time, learning to negotiate how you do this when you manage up is vital.
Ultimately if you don’t want to end up exhausted, resentful and frustrated, setting your own pace is key.
I talked fully about WHY you need to do this here.
What follows in this post is HOW to say ‘no’ (or negotiate).
1. When ‘yes’ is a reflex action…
Remind yourself that…
you are allowed to take your time before responding.
Buy extra time with a phrase such as:
“Can I think about how that fits with what else is going on?”
Often, we don’t even understand the request fully, before reacting. You say ‘yes’ too quickly only to find later, exactly what you were agreeing to. So ensure you ask the who / what / when / where / how (much) questions if you don’t want to regret it later.
2. Two magic words for negotiation:
A straight ‘no’ may not be necessary. Use:
This allows a degree of flexibility, while you can keep to your vision.
3. When you want to stop their bad decisions.
Carla Miller, leadership coach talks of a time when she attended a Board Meeting where the gathering were about to approve a crippling budget, disregarding the contrary advice that she’d been paid to give.
“May I speak?” she enquired.
This request that may seem passive on the surface but is wise for the following reasons:
- They will be unlikely to refuse such an action. Because they say ‘yes’ to a small request, they’re more likely to be open to what she expresses.
- She is complying with the formality of the situation.
- As an outside consultant, such a question shows respect to the status of her listeners.
- The non verbals – such as downward intonation at the end – will sound courteous, yet authoritative.
She then followed this up with:
“I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t make sure you understood the potential consequences of that decision.”
Note the first part of her phrase in italics. This reinforces the fact that she must behave in a manner that is consistent to her given role.
Basically, she’s saying, “You got me in to tell you what to do with the money and now you’re doing what you like,” but nicer.
4. Conflicting priorities
Dale Carnegie talks about showing, rather than telling others as being more persuasive.
I have one client who is a Task Master. She wades through tasks like RuPaul wades through lip gloss.
The problem is she was overburdened. Since working together, I recommended that she list all her tasks on a Miro Board or have some kind of public task list, like Trello, with priorities clearly set out by day.
If someone hops on a call and has a task request, she now pulls up the app and states:
“I’d really like to help you” /”That sounds great.”
“I’ve got these priorities [showing 3 Big Urgent projects for today and a queue of others]. Where would you suggest that fits?”
Nine times out of ten, the person requesting will scuttle off to find someone else.
If you’re a part of several project groups or have more than one immediate leader to whom you report, showing, rather than asking is really useful.
In addition, or instead, you could add:
“Here are my priorities. Where do you think this fits?”
Much of the time, the requester will toddle off and ask someone else.
I mentioned in this post here that one manager may be unaware to the responsibilities given to you by another team leader.
In my experience, what usually happens is they go and speak to each other and learn to agree priorities between themselves before relaying them to you.
5. Are you apologising?
There is a need for many of us to cut out the ‘sorry’. Not completely, but if you’re using it all the time, it reduces your sincerity when you really are sorry. So instead of:
“I’m sorry but I can’t do this for tomorrow.”
use the more confident:
“I’d like to help you but tomorrow will be too soon. This deserves more time. How’s [suggest other day]”
I’ve developed the acronym S.E.N.D. to help you managed your workload, when you can’t actually say ‘no’ and it’s here.
Your Action Step
- Use the phrase above – or a version of it to buy time;
- resist apologising;
- watch your vocal tone is confident without sounding like you don’t care;
- have a plan B so you can suggest a different time line or negotiate who does what;
- use Post-its in a Padlet (use the ‘Shelf’ or ‘Timeline’ template. Alternatively, Project Management Boards like monday.com or Trello can display priorities.