When your job weighs you down: the psychology of saying no to your boss

words in the workplace

Just last week two workplace colleagues were having an intense discussion where one said to the other “I can say no to you, but I can’t say no to my boss.”  I flinched a little in face of the raw honesty and sheer weight of the interaction. Oftentimes, a colleague will just nod to another colleague with no intention of doing what the colleague asked. Which, of course, leads to workplace issues of mistrust. This exchanged laid all the underlying machinations bare.  It also got me thinking and reflecting about my own interactions with the staff I supervise and with my boss. Or rather yet, my past bosses.

I believe in having a supervisory relationship that is more of a mentorship exchange. I encourage reflection and problem-solving. I seek the opinions of my staff. I don’t believe in going it alone. Thus, the glory of a project’s success is to be shared and for the most part, I shield my staff from the ramifications of a project’s “failure”. I encourage debate. Well, debate to a point. After all, there are tasks to be done within a certain time period.

There was a rather unpleasant person I met within the first year of my job, when I was still learning the ropes but had immense responsibility,that made a statement that plays and replays in my mind. He noted that the one that ruled in his workplace was him. There was no debate in his organization. In that situation, staff outright could not say no to the boss. Not many bosses go ahead and make such a statement. At least, however, you know where you stand therein. For someone like me, who encourages debate, where is the cutoff point?

I set the cut-off point when all I hear is whining. Saying no just because-doesn’t fly in my mimi handbook. Saying no out fear doesn’t resonate with me. I believe in pushing oneself and don’t give myself or others easy outs. Saying no out of sheer insubordination…well, that is just insubordinate. Note that the act itself of saying “no” is not insubordination. However, there is a fine line.

From the other side of this staff-boss fence, I have been known to say no to a boss. At the Department of Justice I was labeled a “brat” as a result. Thus, from such a label, you can tell why I dared to say no. That particular workplace was filled with petulant egomaniacs. My thinking was “how could I not say no?”  Lucky for me (or not) most of my bosses have fit under such a label.  I had one boss flat out tell me I was there to make him look good. At some point, I said no and that I was not taking his attitude or job anymore. I quit. However, because that made him look bad, he not only begged me to stay on, but he said I could stay on my own terms. That is lesson number one. You can say no to a boss if you have solid principles on which to stand.

When you say no to a boss, also take your time. Do not say “no” in the moment. If you do so, depending on the grandness of the boss’ ego, you will be labeled as petulant or worse. In the moment, note you hear what he or she is saying and ask to think about the logistics of it. Later on, go and speak with your boss calmly noting you mapped out the project had there are some logistics you want to run by them.  As you bring up issues, however, have proposed solutions. If you go in empty-handed, your “no” will not be considered.

If you want to say “no” to your boss, do so before 4pm and avoid doing it on a Friday.  Otherwise, you may be speaking to an overwhelmed cranky boss that will not be listening to you. Furthermore, they will then just add you to the list of things that have gone wrong that week or day. I would say an optimal time is 2pm. The food is marinating in their stomach and they may have had a lunch cocktail (if you are lucky). Don’t for the life of you go into your boss’ office the second they come in through the door. Such an act will only end with you getting more work.

In order to be able to say “no” to a boss you have to cultivate a persona of being an intelligent, trailblazer. Such a persona always gets away with saying “no” to the boss.  How could they not? Think about it. If you come off as innovative and intelligent and you have a counter opinion, your boss would look a little foolish disregarding your opinion which you would have put forth as “insight.” When you say “no” to a boss it should be because you appear to know without a doubt that “yes” would be wrong.

Now, you can’t make a habit of saying “no” to your boss, even when you know you would be right to do so.  Sometimes you have to let your boss have their way and be wrong. I believe that at times you have to let people fail, even your boss. Then you can have your validation moment.  Those can be all the more sweet than saying “no“.

Inspired by my zany workplaces, the Monday Blues and by the Daily Prompt of: Sixteen Tons

Other thoughts on the daily prompt

knowledge addiction