how to say no to your boss

I get a ton of letters from people who are really unhappy about something their boss is asking of them, but don’t feel they can push back because they’re internalized the idea that you’re never supposed to say no to your boss — that they’d look like a prima donna or difficult, or not a team player.

But the reality is, in many cases you absolutely can push back or say no to something your boss is asking of you, as long as you do it the right way. Today’s podcast episode — the penultimate episode of the show — is all about how to do that, including a bunch of different examples of when you might want to, and exactly what to say in each of them and what your tone should sound like when you do.

It’s 28 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, the iHeartRadio app, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 31 comments… read them below }

  1. No Name Yet*

    I have really enjoyed the podcast, both the practical aspects of actually hearing the tone you suggest for different situations and just hearing more of your fantastic advice. That being said, glad to hear you’re taking your own advice. Enjoy the extra time!

    1. Coffee Bean*

      Seconding this.

      Alison, you have produced a wonderful podcast that has helped tremendously. Congratulations on your next steps and hopefully you get to enjoy some extra time for you!

  2. Secretary*

    I saw “penultimate episode” and immediately skipped to the end of the show before starting at the beginning.
    I’m so sad but I’m very very happy for you Alison! Thanks for setting a great example, and I’m sure we’ll still be hearing plenty from you elsewhere.

    1. Zona the Great*

      Your voice is like butter, Alison. Please start marketing that skill to my favorite audio-book studios!!!

  3. I'm not alone*

    I’m glad you shared this, Allison. For the first time in a year, I finally spoke up and said my plate was just TOO full. It’s been almost a year of being short-staffed and me taking on responsibilities that were previously assigned to a senior position. The company keeps dancing around raising my salary as a result of all my additional tasks… when I finally approached my boss with having too much on my plate, she had the audacity to say “I thought you wanted a promotion…”. She then went out of her way to loop in other departments that were involved in said assigned project to point out that the time commitment would not affect any of my other work, making me look and feel like an idiot. Your blog helps confirm I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m just under shitty management that loves taking advantage.

    1. Ada*

      I feel you. I’m in a very similar situation and looking to leave. Hang in there, and I hope your situation improves soon!

  4. Ask a Manager* Post author

    And since I saw some confusion on Twitter about this: penultimate means second-to-last, not last. The last episode will be next week! (And I’ll talk more in that episode about why I decided to end the show.)

    1. CastIrony*

      I hope you get to see your husband more than occasionally and that you get more sleep!

  5. Detective Amy Santiago*

    For anyone who is considering getting Alison’s book for more examples of language to use in various situations, I highly recommend getting the audio book so you can hear the tone as well!

  6. Podcast Fan*

    What would your advice be on the opposite side of the workload problem, where the people you are assigning work to claim they are too overworked to take on more, when you know they are currently doing about 40% of the expected workload (as laid out both written and verbally) and often spend time the day on non work things like browsing the internet or reading books (likely due to the low workload and space they could be use to sent the assignment they are turning away). I”m not a manager or supervisor, but often and tasked with assigning projects to junior teammates and leading them.

    1. fposte*

      Ask their manager what she wants to do about it. If the manager’s okay with their saying no, it doesn’t really matter if you think they could be more productive than they are.

  7. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

    A lot of this advice is good, but sometimes no matter how nicely you say no. You still get ignored. And sometimes you need a job and so if you still get ignored, you don’t have a choice, but to suck it up until you can find something else (which can take months if not years in some fields).

    I guess the personal cell phone thing resonated with me a lot. Where I work, everyone but C-Suite staff, are required to use their personal cell phone. People have pushed back and they’ve been told it’s the only option. For me it’s not a deal breaker, but I have no idea how I’d manage it if it was.

      1. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow*

        It is worth trying, because you never know when something is an easy fix. Plus suffering in silence isn’t helpful to anyone. It’s just that it doesn’t always work.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      If I were required to use my personal cell, I simply wouldn’t be available by phone. I do have a tracfone, but my spouse has no phone at all. There are a few of us holdouts – would your company require us to get a personal phone?

      1. RUKiddingMe*

        That’s where I would come from personally. I would tell them I don’t have a cell phone. If they wanted me to have one, they could provide it.

  8. ThursdaysGeek*

    I do keep my boss informed on what I’m working on, and if I’m having problems. But if (um, when) I’m given more work than I can do, I just do what I can do, and don’t worry about the rest. Work not being done is my boss’s responsibility*. My responsibility is to do good work in the time allotted. I will work extra in the rare cases where it is needed, but only if those cases stay rare. Otherwise, that’s a management problem, which isn’t my problem. (I guess I can see where I fall on the stressed vs laid back issue.)

    *I’ve never had a boss that had a problem with that, and I’m in a type of job where there is always more to do than can be done.

  9. Ella*

    Right on time.

    I’m an Executive Assistant who is supposed to mainly work for one person, but that hasn’t been the case at all… and now my boss has gotten into the habit of offering me out to others… if they are traveling with her for example, and they are part of another part of the company, even a Board Member who’s travel is supposed to be handled by our CEO’s staff… she keeps offering me to ‘help’. “Ella can help”… I believe she thinks this is little more work for me, or she doesn’t care (probably both) but this is actually cumbersome as I don’t have their information, know their preferences, etc., and actually involves much more work than she thinks. Not to mention how it puts me in a tough spot (like with the CEO’s team) when she steps outside the process.

    Can’t wait to listen. Cause I’m already at the end of my rope and I’m concerned if I say something it’s going to be really close to ‘please go **** yourself already, I’m not your servant’. Sorry, but I’m so tired of being treated this way.

    1. another EA*

      Just want to say as a fellow EA my boss does this too and it drives me up a wall. “Oh, John is traveling to NYC next week, can you help him make some dinner reservations?” Like… no! I can do that for you when you travel because I have access to your entire itinerary, the location you’ll be staying, and your food preferences. Does she really think I just *accidentally* make reservations at restaurants she’ll like in her neighborhood at a time that works for her schedule??


  10. George Glass*

    All of my boss’s management responsibilities were recently transferred to me, in order to free up my boss’s time for other higher level work. Nothing was actually moved off my plate to someone else. No promotion. Since I am a manager, I am expected to… go forth and figure it out–make it work. Figure out how to use the outside resources (contractors) to get the work done. My boss’s boss literally instructed me on the exact words to say to my boss to express how happy I am to get my boss’s workload, so that my boss won’t feel guilty about transferring his job to me. Imagine me rolling my eyes here. I didn’t say “no” because I am worn down and burned out. Yep, I was already burned out. I don’t think I care anymore what happens in this dysfunctional workplace. My job responsibilities are changed every few months–no exaggeration. But now it does appear that, um, I am in charge! So I will be doing this my way.

  11. KC*

    Sorry to hear the podcast is ending. Is it possible to do something less frequently, like monthly? The tone you convey is really important and the podcast is a great way to communicate that.

  12. La*

    This podcast is my rock. You’ll be so missed!

    Would love some if you can share some resources and recommendations to hold us down until you’re back with the latest and greatest project.

    Thanks for everything you’ve given us. And good luck!

  13. S*

    I have a related question!

    How do you know if you’re that employee who does push back?

    In recent past I’ve had to push back a lot, partly because my role is the kind where I have to switch focus based on priorities a lot, and it’s not always gone well – people don’t always want to hear that we need to focus sometimes on avoiding revenue loss when they want to do a thing that *might* mean revenue gain, for instance.

    I always triple check that I’m being positive and offering solutions when I push back, and I often have to, as my position is usually the first to feel it when things aren’t going right – and my personality is one where I prefer to be direct about problems. I just worry that I’ve become That Guy.

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