How to say ‘no’ to your boss (and not get fired)

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Kayleigh Dray
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When you’re trying to shine in your chosen career path, it can be all too easy to say ‘yes’ to every single demand that’s placed upon you. There’s always one more email, one more meeting, one more task - and, before you know it, you’re sat alone in the office at 9pm, wondering what happened. So, how do we push back? 

We’re all guilty of it: our to-do list is overflowing, but, when our boss asks if we’re able to take on one more project, the answer is a resounding “yes, of course!”

The result? You become over-stretched, over-worked and over-tired - and everyone around you is over you. You keep cancelling on drinks with friends, dinner with your family, dates with that cool person you met at your local bookshop. More importantly, though, you keep cancelling on yourself: when you keep saying yes at work, some other part of your life gets told a big, fat no. And, while it may feel like this is the best way to impress, nothing could be further from the truth.

As Evelyn Cotter, the CEO of Seven Career Coaching, explains: “Speaking to our clients, friends, colleagues, the dread surrounding saying no at work is all pervasive among women at all career stages and industries. ‘But what if it means I’m not taken that seriously, or damages my reputation, or my chance for promotion?’ are all thoughts that go through our minds and often ensure we’re taking on more than we can chew.

“But, saying no more at work, is not just the way forward, it could indeed become the very best thing you ever do for your career. Learning to get comfortable with how to use it, getting secure in your abilities and creating healthy boundaries for yourself to ensure you can sustain and maintain your continued performance and deliver consistently, is often the very success habit those bright lights at the heights of your industry used to get to the top of their careers.” 

So how can we reclaim the power of no and see our career star rise?

Your assertiveness will benefit everyone

“There’s a quiet revolution brewing around the power of setting healthy boundaries at work, focusing more about sustainability than quantity,” says Cotter. “As many business leaders have been telling us for years, it’s all about ‘ruthless prioritisation’, as Cheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, puts it.

“Being ruthless in what you can and need to do, and not doing things that take you away from that, is key to performance.”

Cotter suggests making a list of your top 20 priorities, choosing the top five, and actively ignoring the other 15 until you’ve got complete control over the top five.

“The mantra I find most beneficial to remember is, ‘Every time you say yes to something, you have to find something else to say no to,’” says Cotter. “Often things don’t seem that black and white, but by making lists of priorities, we can easily make them so. One more task added to the list, one task deducted… it’s basic maths.” 

Cotter says she challenges her clients to aim to say ‘no’ a minimum of three times each day. This, she says, will improve the quality of your work-life, productivity levels and engagement with your organisation, not to mention respect from your co-workers and manager.

“Being selective might feel counter-intuitive initially, but as you grow in comfort, it will become the new norm for you and those around you,” she says. “If you doubt it, go and seek out examples in your workplace of those who have mastered the art of saying no and model their behaviour until your find your own version.”

Recognise the importance of boundaries 

Boundaries are, as Cotter puts it, “our own individual rules of engagement”. It is crucial that we are clear on what they are, and uphold them to ensure we keep ourselves happy, healthy and whole.

“It’s when we allow others to step over those boundaries, or ignore our own, that we get ourselves into situations where we feel overwhelmed, burdened, resentful and taken advantage of,” says Cotter. “The respect we do or don’t get from others, always starts with the level of respect we first give to ourselves.

“Make your boundaries a priority and your world will become a whole lot easier to navigate.”

The talented CEO advises that you take 20 minutes today to “define, your own individual boundaries, what you will or won’t do and essentially how to ‘protect’ yourself from becoming overloaded or resentful with overflowing plates”. This could mean putting a ban on working after 8pm, or limiting yourself to no more than two late nights at the office a week, or making a point of never skipping lunch.

“All of these things matter and keep you feeling good, valued and respected,” says Cotter. “We need downtime to be able to give of ourselves in the uptime. A lot of that comes from you. If you skip your yoga class or lunch with the girls, for another slog session in the office, how can you expect to feel good, be engaged and perform at a high level? If you’re clear on what your own individual boundaries are, it’s much easier for you to communicate before something can go over them. It’s much easier to explain why you need to say no.”

She adds: “There is a quiet revolution brewing as more and more women are understanding the importance and impact of self-management on their mental health, family, relationships and wellbeing. Creating a mindset to support balance and self-preservation is the new millennial-influenced way of working. Saying no is healthy and essential.”

Top tips for pushing back

While all of this makes sense, it can be hard to put Cotter’s advice into practice - especially if you’re a renowned workaholic and ‘yes’ woman. Thankfully, though, she has broken things down into a series of bite-sized tips and tricks - all of which are incredibly easy to implement into your working day.

  1. Always give yourself time to consider requests, never answer on the spot.
  2. Ask for more time, realistically, to complete additional tasks. Form solid reasoning as to why you require more time to do this to the expected standards, or are better to focus on your core activities and pass it on to someone else.
  3. If saying no is best for you, succinctly give a potential alternative solution.
  4. Know your job description and your own boundaries at work.
  5. Always be professional, considered and positively frame your no in how you communicate it.
  6. Put it back on your line manager. If the new request is conflicting with existing workloads, say: ‘Which is best for me to focus on right now? What is your priority?’
  7. Be realistic with time frames and always give an additional 15% buffer on to your estimates for any tweaking or possible obstacles. This allows you to under-promise and over-deliver.
  8. Know that when you say no, you are preserving your ability to focus and deliver quality. Being over-stretched and under-performing is not good for you, the company or anyone.
  9. Use email so you have a tracker of what’s been agreed.
  10. Keep an eye on out-of-office meetings and events. Have a rule where you go to one a month or one every three months; whatever seems fair as a quote to you. Show that you’re committed, but also hold firm and protect your energy and time.

All in all, it sounds pretty doable. If you’ll excuse us, we’re off to go and exercise the power of no…

Evelyn Cotter is the CEO of Seven Career Coaching. She helps clients out with everything from CV tips and interview skills, to personal branding and life coaching for confidence and assertiveness. 

You can find out more on her website here.

Images: iStock


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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.