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How to Say 'No' to Your Boss and Become More Productive at Work

Saying yes to every project can actually make for an unproductive work environment.
productivity, stress management

Art Credit: Regina Leah

Does the thought of telling your boss “no” when he or she asks you for something make you break out in sweat? I think we can all relate–we want to be viewed as a competent team player willing to get the job done. But saying yes to every project sent your way can make for an unproductive work environment and lead to burnout.

Kristin Muhlner, CEO of NewBrand Analytics, offered some wise insight in a recent interview with Fast Company: “We’ve become so awful at saying no. I try hard to become incredibly selective about those things I engage with, so I can be really present for the stuff that I’m doing. People are trying to accomplish too much, and they’re killing themselves in the process.”

Putting boundaries in place at work is a good thing. But how to do it? The key is to present your concerns in a solution-focused manner, rather than simply complaining that you're too busy. Here are a few tips to help make this conversation with your boss a success.

01. Identify the reason.
Consider why you need to say no. Unfortunately, not “feeling like it” won’t cut it. What resources are you lacking? Is this new task outside of your job description? Are you being asked to fit 80 hours of work into a 40-hour work week? Establish why you will be unable to complete what your boss is asking of you and communicate this reason in specific terms.

When you explain to your boss why you don’t have the time or resources to complete a project, you're proving that you have a clear understanding of your job description, your resources, and the requirements of the project in question. It's an opportunity to show that you have a realistic and accurate picture of the situation. And it can reveal your ability to prevent unwelcome surprises as the project deadline approaches.

02. Prepare a definitive statement.
Recognizing when you need to say “no” is the first step, but knowing how to say “no” is just as important. A simple “no” or “I can’t” won’t be enough. Instead, start off by stating your understanding of the issue. Explain why you can't meet the goal using concrete evidence. Then reiterate your commitment to finding a solution. For example, “I understand that we need to have the conference materials ready to print by the end of the month. We haven’t received approval from legal. Once we do, we’ll only have one week to put the materials together. I know how important this project is for the success of the conference. I'm committed to seeing it through, but I need your guidance to find a workable solution."

03. Offer solutions.
Show your boss that you aren’t just trying to get out of something by offering practical solutions to the problem at hand. Can you meet the request if you had an extension or extra support? Discuss with your boss the tradeoffs that meeting the goal as is will entail and ask for her input. Could you complete the project if you could put another project on hold? Offer at least three possible solutions to help her with the decision-making process. This will show her that you are willing to work to find a solution and that her professional advice or input is important to you.

While saying no may never come easy, these tips will foster a productive conversation with your supervisor. They'll appreciate your honesty and clarity—which will lead to a happier and more efficient working environment. Saying no could be one of your best career moves yet.