Four Tips For Saying No to the Boss

What should you do when your boss keeps asking for things? What should you do when demands pile up so high that you and your team are constantly overbooked and the work just keeps coming?

I always talk about how you need to rise above the tactical workload and be more strategic — but what do you do when it’s your boss that is causing the problem?

I have been the annoying boss in this story! When I was running a $1billion software organization, I was the one who was guilty of doing this to my staff.

The disconnect

There is a built-in disconnect that I find very interesting:

When you are working in the business, generally speaking, your job is get work done.

But when you are running a business, generally speaking, your job is to go out into the world, learn things about the customers, the competition, and the market, and figure out new stuff to do.

Then you come back all excited about what you’ve learned, and share your ideas with your team about how to improve the business — and they are exasperated. You see it as great new ideas. They see it as more work, changing direction, or fire drills.

There will always be a disconnect between what the boss thinks up and what the organization can deliver.

The secret

Here is the secret. Your boss wants you to push back. Your boss is expecting you to think through the business strategy and the workload an offer advice – not to just try and do everything.

“Oh, no. She’s back…”

I know that when I would come back from a trip, my staff would brace themselves and think “Oh, no, she’s back. Now what? What else is she going to want us to do? We are already too busy, why does she keep piling it on?”

As the boss, I wanted my team to listen and internalize what I had learned. But I did not want them to treat all ideas and requests equally and immediately.

I did not want my team to just try and take on all the work and have it kill them. I did not want or expect them to do everything.

What I wanted was for them to catch all the work, analyze it, make judgements about business priorities and come back to me and negotiate.

Advise your Executive

Big Idea: You need to catch all the work, but not do all the work.

I wanted them to stay focused on the strategic stuff we were working on, but be aware that key triggers were occurring in the market.

I wanted them to think it though and recommend to me how we could stage out all the work. How could we keep focused on the right strategic stuff, but then also come up with a way to prioritize the new ideas and take some of them on over time?

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I wanted them to suggest ways of streamlining or stopping things to make room for something new. I wanted them to debate with my about what is most important and why, and suggest how to re-work the plan to do the most important things first.

Who stands out?

The people who would come back to me with a thoughtful proposal for what to do, in what order, that would be good for the business, and do-able for the team were the ones that stood out as high performers.

The ones who didn’t just accept all my ideas and requests, and helped me think through the strategy and priorities, stood out as high performers.

The ones who tried to take on all the work and do everything, resulting in everything slipping, were not so impressive.

The ones who simply ignored my inputs, kept their heads down, and did not step up to the strategic thinking and debate, were not so impressive either.

How to negotiate the workload

  • Keep a list of everything your boss asks for.
  • Keep a list of the top strategic priorities you are working on.
  • Have regular meetings with your boss where you take out these lists.
  • Make recommendations about what to prioritize based on the context of business and the content of these two lists.

When you show your boss these lists several things happen.

  • They get embarrassed not realizing they have asked for so many things. When they see it spelled out right there in front of them, they can see it’s unreasonable.
  • You win lots of credibility for keeping the list, catching everything, and not dropping anything. You make them comfortable that you’ve got it covered. They trust you.
  • You can ask them “Is this still important?” You will find they have forgotten about several of the requests and have decided that others don’t matter anymore.
  • You will realize that you are not beholden to everything on the list!
  • You will be able to negotiate time lines and suggest priorities.

Your boss forgets

There is a tendency to treat all requests from the boss equally. You need to resist this because they don’t intend them all equally.

They can seem equally excited or serious about a wide range of ideas. Some are vitally important, others are just musings. It’s hard to tell. They will often forget things that asked for, or change their mind without telling you. You need to check.

They need you to help them with their thinking. You are being paid to judge and decide, not just to do everything you are told.

PS: Want to know more? Attend my free webinar this week — Be Less Busy, Be More Strategic.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her new book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at .


2 Comments on “Four Tips For Saying No to the Boss

  1. It’s great to have a boss that can be introspective. If more bosses thought along these lines, the work world would be a much better place. One thought to keep in mind though, from the employee point of view……some of us CAN think outside the box, have the courage, to question things, think them through, or God forbid, be creative, and communicate back to you. Others need help in realizing that it is OK to think like that. Many of us feel so downtrodden in our jobs, and with the fear of losing a job, keep our heads down, do the job given to us without question, and hope that it is enough to hide oursleves from layoffs etc. It is a hard place to be as an employee these days. So much at stake if we are perceived as nah-sayers, just because we speak up. End result….we don’t speak up. THAT has to be fixed.

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