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Saying No to Your Boss

All of us are occasionally faced with turning down a request from a supervisor. Sometimes it seems easier just to give in and take on one more task. Though refusing might be essential, it's rarely a simple, "No." Pat Brans explains how best to turn down a request from various types of bosses: tyrant, narcissist, micro-manager, etc., and even the occasional reasonable person.
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Saying no is difficult for most people. When somebody asks you to do something, and you either can't or don't want to do it, refusing the request requires you to perform at least one (and often two) difficult acts:

  • The first difficult act is accepting that you will miss an opportunity. This step is only a problem when you want to do what's being asked, but you can't due to lack of time or some other reason.
  • The second difficult act is telling the person making the request that you won't do what they want you to do, probably disappointing that person. This step is always necessary and always difficult.

Saying no is even harder when the person you have to let down is your supervisor. The stakes might be higher. Saying no the wrong way can put you on your manager's bad side. But the rewards can also be greater when you say no in the right way. Showing higher-ups that you think about the best use of your time, and that you understand how your work fits into the mission of the bigger team, can win you points.

What are some good ways to anticipate requests from your supervisor and turn them down appropriately? How can you gain your supervisor's respect in the process? What are some good ways of saying no to a difficult boss?

What to Do When Your Supervisor Is Reasonable

Equitable managers understand that it's good for the organization when employees have minds of their own and express themselves freely—but only to a certain extent, of course. Leaders who surround themselves with "yes people" eventually get the whole organization into trouble, and leaders who are exposed to a variety of opinions make good decisions and produce good results for the organization. Consequently, smart leaders welcome diverse opinions.

If your boss is reasonable, here are three tips for anticipating requests and handling them appropriately:

  • Always keep your boss informed about what you're doing. When he or she asks you to do something new, you can point out that you already have a full plate. Then ask which of your current tasks you should stop doing.
  • Before saying no, make sure that's really how you want to answer. Ask questions about the request, to make sure that you understand exactly what's being asked of you and how it fits into the overall mission of your company. Consider how you would benefit personally from accepting the request. If the work is something that could help you reach your goals, you might want to look for a compromise that allows you to get at least partially involved in what's being asked.
  • Explore alternatives. Ask your boss whether somebody else on your team can take on this task. Perhaps you can do it later, or maybe you can solve the problem in a different way. Try to engage your supervisor in a conversation to search for different ways of accomplishing whatever it is that he or she wants done.

A reasonable supervisor strives to achieve outcomes that are good for the overall group, and knows that he or she wins when everybody else on the team wins. So if you follow these three rules with a reasonable supervisor, you'll likely gain your supervisor's respect, and he or she might start asking for your opinion more often.

What to Do When You Have a Difficult Boss

Saying no isn't as easy when you have a difficult boss. Unreasonable supervisors come in many forms, and you might need to adjust your way of turning down work, depending on the situation. Let's consider five types of difficult managers and some strategies for saying no to each:

  • Supervisors who avoid conflict
  • Supervisors who are narcissists
  • Supervisors who are tyrants
  • Supervisors who micro-manage
  • Supervisors who are absent

Supervisors Who Avoid Conflict

Conflict avoiders sidestep any thorny issue, even if it requires telling small lies to dance around a delicate point. You can easily say no to a conflict-avoidant boss, who will probably accept your refusal with a smile. But because you can't be sure that he or she is being sincere, you don't know whether your refusal will come back to bite you somewhere down the line.

When you have to turn down a request from a conflict-avoidant manager, don't start out by taking the position that you absolutely have to say no. If your boss thinks you're taking a position, he or she might side with you to avoid conflict—but that's not a true indication of agreement.

Instead, start out by providing the reasons for which you need to turn down the request. Make sure your supervisor follows your rationale and freely arrives at the same conclusion—that you must turn down the request.

When you take this approach, be open to changing your mind in the process. Maybe your reasoning isn't as solid as you thought. Maybe you should accept the task.


The narcissistic boss is primarily concerned with his or her own image. Narcissists tend to use underlings as a means to pursue their own self-interest, and all their decisions are directed toward self-aggrandizement. The narcissistic supervisor doesn't like to receive complaints or negative feedback.

The worst thing to do with narcissistic managers is to make them feel slighted. Be careful how you turn down this supervisor request. Try to determine the reasoning behind the request, and never let it slip that you think the request makes no sense.

Find ways of demonstrating that your refusal is in the interest of the narcissistic manager. For example, you might point out that if accepting the new task will jeopardize a different task that makes the boss look even better.


The tyrannical boss doesn't care about being liked. In fact, tyrants seem to go out of their way to be disliked by underlings. Because they don't believe that both parties can win in a negotiation, tyrants seek win-lose outcomes.

You can expect a harsh initial reaction any time you turn down a tyrannical boss. However, with a little time, the tyrant will accept your refusal. Moreover, his or her acceptance is more sincere than that of the conflict-avoidant boss.

Don't let the fear of abusive treatment delay your refusal. Let your boss know immediately if you think you can't take on a task, and try to brush off any initial harsh reaction. Above all, try not to take attacks as being directed at you personally. The tyrannical boss acts the same way toward most people.


Micro-manager bosses can't let go of control. They tell you what to do and how to do it; then they check up on you while you're doing it because they don't think you can work on your own. For the micro-manager, control itself is the goal.

Resist the temptation to point out to this kind of supervisor that he or she is a micro-manager. The supervisor will only provide rational explanations for his or her behavior; you'll never win the ensuing debate.

When you refuse a request from a micro-manager, don't leave an opening for that supervisor to do the work himself or herself. If that happens, supervisors usually leave a significant number of loose ends that you'll have to clean up afterward. You'd be better off doing the work yourself the first time around.

Absentee Supervisors

The absentee boss is never around, which makes it difficult to get information you need, or get approval for decisions. The absentee boss asks you to do something, but doesn't have time now to discuss it or address your request for more information, so you schedule time to explore the task further. Then the boss cancels the meeting, leaving you in limbo.

Absentee bosses don't answer phone messages or respond to email, so you can't be sure that he or she even heard or read your message. Or they respond so late that the response is no longer relevant.

It's not easy to say no to a boss if you never see or talk to him or her. To refuse a request from an absentee boss, you need to respond immediately upon receiving the request—the only time you definitely have his or her attention. You may not be sure that you want to refuse the request, but because you know you'd have a difficult time reaching the manager, you have to at least make him or her understand that you aren't saying yes.

One tactful way of indicating you haven't accepted a request is to tell your absentee supervisor that you don't understand the request and need to talk it over. You might also say immediately that you think the requested task will jeopardize other important activities, and you need to go over priorities with your supervisor.

Though saying no to your boss is never simple, it's much easier when you follow a custom-fit strategy. Be proactive. Before the need to say no comes up, spend a little time thinking about your supervisor's style. What are the best ways to refuse his or her requests?

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