How You Can Say "No" to Your Boss


Many times at work, you need to stand up for yourself. Both your productivity and your promotions depend on your ability to set limits and to appear confident and in charge.

The ability to say "No" in a positive way is an excellent skill to develop.

Assertive and proactive skills are key to accelerating your career in the high tech workplace. These skills are also essential for preventing job burnout and for maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Saying "No" is the focus of William Ury's book, The Power of a Positive No. Ury wrote the classic negotiation book, Getting to Yes. He is the co-founder of Harvard University's Program on Negotiations.

Exercise Your Power Without Harming Relationships

How do you say "No" to your boss? The Power of a Positive No offers an approach to help you resolve this power-versus-relationship dilemma. We explain the three steps of this approach here.

There is often tension between exercising your power and maintaining your relationship with the other person. Both are important needs. But exercising your power may strain your relationship. And focusing on the relationship may weaken your power.

Resolving this dilemma of power-versus-relationship is particularly important for foreign-born professionals.

You know already that the ability to be assertive and exercise power by saying "No" is essential to accelerating your career and coping with stress in the high tech workplace. You need to set limits to prevent yourself from being burned out by overwork and stress. You need to also maintain a healthy balance between work and family life.

But saying "No" is counter to many cultures.

Many Asians, for example, expect their managers to have the right answers, make decisions for their employees, and tell employees what to do. So following the chain of command is important proctocol, and maintaining a harmonious relationship with their managers is paramount.

The Power of a Positive No offers a way out of this dilemma. It is an important guidebook for foreign-born professionals.

Three Steps to a Positive "No"

A positive "No" consistens of a three-step sequence of "Yes! No! Yes?"

  1. Yes! You say "Yes" to yourself and communicate what this means to the other person to protect your core interests and values.

  2. No! You assert your "No" in a matter-of-fact way that sets clear limits but does not reject or alienate the other person.

  3. Yes! You end by proposing a "Yes." This is an invitation to reach an agreement that protects your interests and also respects the needs of the other person.

How You Can Say "No" to Your Boss

What if your boss asks you to move up a deadline for an important project that you are responsible for? To do this, you would need to work 16-hour days and weekends for the next month.

But you have already made plans for a trip with your spouse. You also have been working long hours that have kept you away from your family, even at holiday times. This has put a strain on your marriage. You have been struggling with balancing work and family and fear that you are facing burnout.

A positive "No" in this situation might involve saying the following, using Ury's approach:

1. Say "Yes!" to yourself and protect your interests.

You decide to keep your promise to your family. This is saying "Yes" to yourself.

You see your boss to discuss your concerns about changing the deadline. You explain you have longstanding plans to take a trip with your spouse and children to visit your parents in another state. You emphasize how important this trip is to you and your family.

2. Say "No!" to set clear limits.

Because of your cultural values, you may not be comfortable with telling your boss that you will not change the deadline. So, you say instead that it will be "very difficult" to do so, that you are "concerned" about this change, and/or that you are "not comfortable" with the new deadline.

3. Say "Yes?" to suggest a mutually agreeable alternative.

You then suggest an arrangement that respects your needs and those of your boss. For example, you ask about bringing additional people on the project to meet the new deadline. Or you propose a different deadline that could work for you and your boss.

Examples to Learn From

We know that it can be challenging, even intimidating, to say "No" at work, especially to your boss.

That's why we encourage you to read and follow the guidelines in The Power of a Positive No.

It offers a variety of examples illustrating how to use the "Yes! No! Yes?" approach. It even includes an example of how to negotiate an inter-cultural conflict.

This book does not offer a simple solution to all situations you may face. But, if you take the time to understand and to apply its key concepts, we believe you will experience valuable results.

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