Why you need to say ‘no’ to your manager or senior leaders

Frankie Kemp

16 February 2021

There’s a pervasive myth that you don’t question authority or say an outright ‘no’ to a manager or leader.  However, there are several valid reasons why you’d need to challenge your managers – politely, of course.

In some cases, this can even save lives. Take the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, for example.  This calamity was due to engineers’ concerns about the O-rings not being communicated adequately as they were passed up the chain of command.

Saying ‘no’ does not make you a bad person. In fact, the beauty of this is that you help others understand the consequences of decisions.  You could say that it’s an act of generosity.  It’s also a word that denotes humility, driven by a knowledge of your own limits.

But questioning decisions doesn’t necessarily infer an outright objection. You may be opening the door to a better negotiation of the circumstances.

Here are five reasons to say ‘no’ to your managers and leaders:

1. You protect yourself and others from time consuming unrewarding activities, in some cases, even protecting lives, as in the Space Shuttle disaster.

I’ve been bought into companies to help teams have the guts to speak out.  Leaders often *want* to encourage this. They need others to point out what they can’t see.


2.  You give your team and yourself the ability to do great work.

Decisions that negatively impact your team will hold them back. For instance, moving the date of a project forward may result in the need to cut corners in quality, all for the sake of making a spreadsheet looks good for that quarter.  This would be a short term gain resulting in a longer term sacrifice.


3. There are misplaced priorities.

I’m not knocking senior leaders here. Sometimes priorities are askew simply because they’re unaware of what else you’ve got on.

You may have a leader for each of the projects you’re working on. It’s up to you to get them to know then agree amongst each other where the focus should be.

Negotiating deadlines before you miss them shows awareness and leadership in itself.  Believe me, they’re usually more willing to do this than deal with an irate client because someone backstage has been silently struggling with time lines.


4. You’re overworked. 

OK, this is relative.  Some people think if they’re working more than 4 hours a week, they’re under pressure. I’ll leave you to judge where the limit is.

A friend of mine is working across UK and US time zones. With a family at home, starting at 8am and finishing at 10pm could have turned her into a raving psycho.
However, she negotiated with her team, and manager, that she’s out of contact for several hours during the day.

Leaders aren’t necessarily aware of how the responsibilities they give play out in practice and part of your role is to point these out.


5. Your competence has set you up as a task basket.

You’re so able that they keep on giving you jobs to do.  No-one sees you weeping into your pillow at night.

I’m not advocating incompetence.  However, you can’t tick off burn out on a Trello board and I’d presume that you didn’t get given the job because you looked like a sacrificial lamb.  So renegotiate deadlines or delegate, otherwise you’ll be paying a much larger price with your health.

When you absolutely can’t speak out

In some organisations or departments, leaders regard challenging or questioning decisions as objectionable. In which case, your decision is to stay or go.

If it’s the former, you may find other allies or make peace with yourself, keeping your head down and bumping along the ride.

If you do decide to leave, make sure you go somewhere which shares your values.


In any case, it’s always prudent to pick your battles.  In this post here, I tell you exactly HOW to say ‘no’ without damaging your career.


One last thought…

“There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”



Want help with your Communication Skills?  Have trouble with misunderstandings and friction in dispersed teams?  Go here to look what I can do for individuals and groups.

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