How To Succeed In Saying No To Your Boss (Or Anyone Else)

Answer: Carefully. It depends on whether the Person

  1. Encourages push back and contrary opinions. Some leaders prize it when you challenge their position. So in that case speak up. Others resist anyone who opposes their ideas. Here, be careful what you say and push for clarification rather than confrontation.
  1. Respects your opinions in the first place. I know of a senior leader who reports that the CEO of his company routinely falls asleep or yawns while this leader is making a presentation. This is certainly not a case of narcolepsy but rather an act of disrespect or the CEO’s way of saying “your opinion does not matter to me”.
  1.  Does not dwell on “losing face”. In certain cultures, corporate and/or national, challenging the boss’ position is seen as a loss of face for the person in authority. Here it would be better to state your contrary opinion in a memo prior to the public meeting or let it trickle up the chain of command.
  1. Is in a conflict avoidant culture. There are some people and groups that seem to avoid conflict at all costs. As a result important issues are swept under the rug, continue unresolved for ages, and lead to all sorts of passive-aggressive behavior on the part of the employees (like being late on assignments or missing important meetings).
  1. Is in a direct or indirect communication culture. In the face of conflict some cultures “beat around the bush” and state issues very tangentially. Other, are “in your face” and very direct when they speak about conflicted issues. However, they are not necessarily intentionally disrespectful. Adapt to the style of your group.

In the end it’s a matter of

  1. Understanding that you may have limited information. Remember that your boss sees organizational issues from a different perspective. You were not at the meeting of senior leaders where the strategy under discussion was already debated. Also, the boss cannot divulge certain information and as a result your perspective may be limited.
  1. Knowing how to deliver the message. A “yes-but” response can be viewed as a direct challenge to the boss. Better to give a “Yes-and” response where you validate her/his position and then give your value add statement. This helps you as coming across as having desire to make a contribution and not just present a contradiction.
  1. Discerning what is important to your boss. Knowing his/her priorities and aligning those with both your expectations and your behavior is vital to your participation in the organization’s decision-making process.
  1. Recognizing the difference between assertive and aggressive behavior. The difference between the two types of behavior boils down to one’s motive. Aggressive behavior comes from a place of wanting to have the upper hand. Assertive behavior is driven by the desire to make a positive contribution and letting the group know your position.
  1. Listening before you speak. The “born with two ears and one mouth” rule applies here. This is especially true when the subject being discussed is out of your primary knowledge domain or we want to draw out the opinions of others. Here self-restraint is needed in holding back your opinion especially if you already know the answers.

So go ahead and speak up in the presence of your boss, seek to attune to his/her communication or personality style, and choose your battles carefully.

How do you say no to your boss?

Where did you succeed or fail?

Lessons learned?


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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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