Tell Boss No, Without Actually Saying It


Do you report to a boss who has the compassion and understanding of Attila the Hun when it comes to pouring on the work? The kind of person who, when you ask for help in establishing priorities, says, “Do it all equally well and, by the way, get it to me early”?

You may deserve an endurance award for surviving and keeping your job these past few years, but have you noticed that times have changed? Stress may have shot up, but so has the economy. Business is booming. Unemployment is low. Bosses--even the mad dogs--have to be concerned with attracting and keeping good workers. And career experts are saying that if ever there was a time to speak up about your workload, it is now.

People are feeling more powerful when it comes to influencing their work terms, said Batia Wiesenfeld, assistant professor of management at Stern School of Business at New York University. Plus, society in general (with the likely exception of Attila) is starting to admire those who separate work and nonwork activities, said Wiesenfeld, who does research on employees’ attitudes.

So, how about it? Do you feel like drawing some lines? If so, you should know the traditional approach to saying “no” to a boss--an approach that never includes actually saying “no.”

First, outline your current workload, and say that the new project could be fit in if you could pass off or put off some of your other work--otherwise quality will take a nose dive. As long as you’re not perceived as whining and lazy, a rational boss will help you reshuffle priorities or find another person to take on the new assignment.


Controlling an irrational boss, though, needs added finessing, said Marilyn Puder-York, a Manhattan therapist and executive coach. To people who are secure and centered, the concept of “no” can be helpful information. It lets them know what’s possible and not possible, she said. “I respect people who can say no. It shows self-confidence, security and strength. But to someone who is insecure or power-hungry, it can be like a red flag to a bull. They hear or experience the concept of ‘no’ as a huge threat or provocation.”

That’s why you need to carry a dual message--that something negative may happen if you’re stretched too thin, while at the same time making the boss feel important, smart and powerful. Say you are only too willing to fulfill the request, but you worry about the resulting consequence for the business and for him or her. With no hint of insubordination, said Puder-York, you want to get across the idea that, “Hey, I would love to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge for you, but then I worry that the press would come and write my obituary. It could hurt business. Have you thought of an alternative?”

The key, she said, is to deliver the message while still feeding the boss’ need to retain power.

Some bosses are not necessarily controlling, but they are energetic--able to juggle a thousand balls at a time and oblivious to the fact that you can’t.

One approach, said Mortimer R. Feinberg, chairman of BFS Psychological Associates in Manhattan, is to just throw in the towel and say you can’t get the new project done, but compliment him or her while you’re doing it. You might just say, “You know, I don’t have your energy. I wish I did, but that’s why you are where you are and I am where I am.”

One thing’s for sure--you should not suffer in silence, said Harvey Hornstein, psychology professor at Columbia University and author of “Brutal Bosses and Their Prey” (Riverside, 1996). He found in his research that people subjected to abusive behavior may be too embarrassed to tell friends and family. “They pay the highest price in self-esteem, depression and anxiety,” he said.

So do talk about the situation with loved ones, as well as outside advisors, such as mentors. If you don’t have one, you can hire one--these days they’re called coaches--to see you through just such a dilemma. They charge $250 to $500 a month, and can talk you through career issues in weekly phone calls and e-mail. Check out to find names.

If you’ve come to the end of your rope, are already looking for another job and don’t mind a gamble, you can consider this last resort. Feinberg calls it the “posse” approach. As a group, let the boss know, “If you strain us any more, the whole project / department will collapse.” Even the most brutal of the brutal worry about looking bad with superiors either because of a mutiny or the actual collapse of a project. So, things might ease up for a while--but oh, the potential for retribution down the road!

Of course, even the smallest resistance on your part might signal an overly controlling boss that you can’t be controlled, thus earning you even more lashes, Puder-York said. The real solution may be to transfer to another department or move on. “You can only buffer yourself so long,” she said. “Eventually, you’ll get shot.”

Indeed, Nancy Powers, a coach from Bayville, N.Y., would be asking you to examine why you stay in a work situation you consider abusive. She finds many of her clients re-creating in work relationships what she calls “family of origin stuff,” such as a need to gain approval from an authority figure. Her view is, “Suffering is optional.” So, taking other factors into consideration, she advises some clients to hit the job-search trail.

Depending on your industry and specialty, that may be an option. A boss like yours is “hopelessly out of touch with what’s going on in this job market,” said Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a career consultant in Wilmette, Ill., and editor of Kennedy’s Career Strategist, a newsletter.

“This is the best market in 23 years. Anyone who’s not on visible life support is hirable,” she said. “This is a time to say whatever you need to until you find a new job and you can say, ‘Sayonara.’ ”