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How to say no to your boss or client: 7 tips


How to say no to your boss, an employee or a client can be a task fraught with anxiety for some people. But there are times when saying no is unavoidable.

Perhaps you are asked to do something illegal, unethical or against company policy. Or, most common, you may have to say no when the request is not possible to do for practical concerns such as lack of time, resources or personnel.

When this situation arises it is important to address it correctly, especially if ignoring the issue could hurt productivity and make the situation worse.

There are right and wrong ways to say no.

Here are seven things to keep in mind when the prospect of saying no is necessary.

1. Set priorities and expectations

Competing priorities within an organization can undermine employee productivity and time management. When this happens there are keys to properly addressing these situations.

The first thing a manager should do is make sure those orders are prioritized correctly and that employees are working on the things that are most important to the department or organization.

Determine what is important and what is urgent. There is a difference.

Urgent tasks can often take priority, but they might not the most important in terms of the organization’s goals.

Set realistic expectations for what a team can deliver. People sometimes say, “under promise and over deliver,” but setting realistic expectations for what your team can deliver is the best way to avoid misunderstandings later.

2. Define success on new projects

Eliminate ambiguity when introducing new tasks.

There is a difference between saying I need you to do X, Y and Z by this date and defining what a good X, Y and Z should look like. There should be no misunderstanding.

For example, you might need an employee to produce a report detailing an aspect of the company’s first quarter production by the end of the day for inclusion in the quarterly report. The what, when and why is succinct and makes it clear exactly what is expected.

If the employee or client clearly understands what your plan is and why, then both sides are in a better position to give specific feedback. Maybe one side won’t have to say no, or the other side will understand why the initial request might not be feasible and readjust expectations accordingly.

3. Make your point without making an enemy

Many of us have heard the old maxim about the customer is always right, even when they may be wrong. But sometimes saying no is not no, but a not now, or not necessarily.

Explain what you can do for them, not what you can’t. There may be limitations to what can be accomplished in a set time. For example, rigorous laws or regulations may pose an unforeseen barrier to completion. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of available bandwidth.

If there are valid reasons why the answer is not a yes at this time, people understand.

Maybe the project can be adjusted or postponed until a later date. Explain what you think is achievable and offer a compromise that might work well with clients, supervisors or employees.

There’s a right way to tactfully say no and still be responsive to the individual. Be clear, but polite, in your explanation why something may not work. It is okay to disagree, but it’s not okay to be disagreeable.

4. Lack of communication is a no-no

Just saying no without providing any rationale for doing so isn’t going to help things. You don’t have to explain everything, but it is important for people to understand why something doesn’t have to happen.

Explaining the rationale behind a decision allows the person to accept it more readily.

Another thing that is important is the tone of voice. How you say something is just as important as what you say. When you are communicating no, your tone of voice may determine how it is received by the employee, client or supervisor.

5. Manage expectations up the chain of command

When working with a key client or a superior, it’s important to manage expectations by being purposeful as to what you communicate.

For instance, you might be the HR director submitting a budget request to management.

If you present the best information possible, it’s easier for management to make good decisions. It is not just a matter of feeling strongly about something, but you must communicate your opinion in a way that explains and justifies how it should be done or why it is necessary.

Remember: you’re a partner and not a problem in this situation.

Help your audience understand your position from a business perspective. It might just be the differentiator between getting your budget approved or not.

6. When saying no is not an option

There will be times when tasks are ordered from the top where practicality or time constraints are not fully understood by management. Sometimes marching orders are just that – marching orders – and must be complied with.

When a task must be completed under time duress, success can be challenging.

Start by reviewing the project with your team. Break it down to manageable chunks and ensure everyone understands the various deliverables and specifications.

Emergency situations happen. There are times when things just have to get done. If people understand the why and the how, it helps them overcome their objections and doubts.

7. Paint the big picture

One way to keep employees from getting inundated or overwhelmed is to make certain everyone understands the big picture — the organization’s mission and goals. If they understand that, they are better equipped to understand when the answer is no.

Being told no without knowing why can anger or frustrate people. So be as specific as you can be: Here’s the changes, here’s the tools you need to adapt to those changes, and here’s what is expected of you going forward. Seek clarity over confusion, and you will lessen potential productivity road blocks.

About that big picture: It is best that someone high up in the organization, and the higher up the better, does the explaining. That allows an employee to be more fully engaged in the organization and that is critical, because it makes it easier for those times when having to say no is the best option. Your ability to manage difficult situations – like saying no to a client, boss or team member – will play an integral role in the success of the business