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How to say no to your boss

  • Story Highlights
  • There are ways to say "no" to boss without endangering job
  • Define your boss' expectations clearly early in your job
  • Have hard data and explain why something won't work with company goals
  • Expert: Sometimes safer to turn off phone, than turn down a request
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By Maureen Salamon
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(LifeWire) -- Her boss always found a reason Kristen Baldwin Ballinger should come into the office on Fridays despite her work-at-home arrangement. But she always found a way to refuse -- without actually saying the word "no."

How to say no to your boss

"I have a two-hour commute each way," says the Dover, Delaware, resident, a 30-year-old software-implementation consultant for a information technology firm.

"So I reminded him of our original agreement and promised that was two more hours I could spend working. I was ultimately saying 'no' but never flat-out said it."

Turning down the boss is tricky territory, particularly in a sour economy with tens of thousands being laid off each month. How do you say "no" to your boss without losing your job? Career coaches say to follow Ballinger's lead.

"I think the synonym for no is 'Yes, but...'" says Susan Lawley, Ph.D., a career and life coach in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. Such a response "creates goodwill and sets boundaries on terms that work for both sides. It's a beautiful middle ground that safeguards what you promise to deliver, but you don't have to say 'no.'"

How will your boss react?

Some bosses are easier to say "no" to. A few may actually want to hear it.

"You need to have people on your team who can think," says Craig Atkinson, 39, career development director for Walsh Construction in Chicago, a civil and commercial construction firm. "We actually don't want robots who follow blindly."

Mike Calihan agrees.

"You want people around you who are going to question your opinions," says Calihan, 59, training director for Aldridge Electric, a national electrical contractor in Libertyville, Illinois. "It shows they're bright and motivated."

Know your boss

Only a third of U.S. workers don't "follow the orders" of their immediate supervisors either regularly or from time to time, according to a global survey of 5,500 workers in the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. (Romania was No. 1 for disobedience at 60 percent; the U.S. came in last.)

The 2007 study by human-resources consulting firm BPI found that Moroccan workers have the highest overall opinion of their managers (92 percent), with Americans second (86 percent). The nations whose workers like their bosses least: France and Germany (64 percent).

Some workers are clever about how they say "no."

When Candy Washington, 25, whose first love is acting, needs to attend rehearsals and auditions, she approaches the boss she knows is more favorable toward her plans.

"One of my bosses is like the strict parent and one is the lenient parent," says Washington, marketing coordinator for a Manhattan branding and marketing firm. "You know as a teenager, how you know what to go to Mom for and what to go to Dad for? It's kind of like that."

It helps that she's passionate about her day job. "I never let this work suffer because I have another thing I want to do," Washington says.

Set expectations early

Saying "no" to your boss can start on your first day. North Carolina career coach Bill Treasurer, CEO of Giant Leap Consulting and author of the forthcoming book "Courage Goes to Work," advocates clear communication early on.

Ways to make "no" work:

• Agree early that your boss doesn't want you to be a "yes" person. It's easier to say "no" if you've defined expectations early in your tenure.

• Be clear on your desired outcome. Why is a "no" necessary? Is it about upholding a personal boundary or bucking authority? Flesh it out for your boss.

• Tie it to your boss' goals. Emphasize results: Use hard data to demonstrate how your saying "no" will advance your manager's agenda.

• Question it. Ask things like, "How will this help us attain your goal?" or "If I do this task, which other task do you want me not to do?"

• Be courageous. Remember that few make it to senior management without saying "no."

What about when work conflicts with personal time? Life coach Lawley says you may want to avoid the question.

"This probably sounds like heresy," she says, "but if there is something so precious to you that you don't want to be disturbed, like your kid's birthday party or your 30th anniversary, shut off the phone and turn off the BlackBerry. We should safeguard those moments."

Ballinger isn't so sure. Before she took leave to give birth to her daughter three months ago, she often worked until 8 or 9 p.m. and frequently had to travel out of state. Her boss has already asked her to resume her demanding schedule when she returns to work full time in July.

She said no. "By company practice, they have to accept that," she says. But Ballinger still wonders if her career will suffer.

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer.

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