The delicate art of saying 'No' to your boss: Kira Vermond dissects the latest workplace and career trends

Just say "no." On the face of it, it sounds easy enough to turn down a request. But why - especially when that request is coming from the boss, a colleague or a client - can it seem so difficult? Saying yes feels good.

But saying "yes" too often instead of "no" usually leads to eschewing shut-eye in order to meet the seventh urgent deadline of the month. And it's not necessarily organizations demanding longer hours and increased workloads either, according to a recent report sponsored by the federal Ministry of Health. Employees have lost the art of the polite but firm push-back. We just can't say "no."

No Cause

Nor will we ask colleagues for help. According to the Ministry of Health report, Reducing Work-Life Conflict: What Works? What Doesn't?, 65 per cent of employees rarely turn to others to lighten the load when they're stressed out. But why do so many employees have a hard time saying "no" to a simple request or even an unreasonable demand?

It all comes down to how we feel about the word "no," says Jim Camp, negotiation expert and author of No: The Only Negotiation System You Need for Work and Home.

"I've been to China, Africa, South America and I have Canadian clients. What I've found is the universality of the fear around 'no.' People are really afraid to say 'no' and they don't want to hear it either."

The negativity that surrounds the word may hearken back to childhood. It's hard to feel good about a word that kept you out of the cookie jar, Mr. Camp says.

Not only does saying "no" feel awkward, many employees fear that saying "no" will peg them as unhelpful.

They may worry about their reputation or fear getting fired. Never mind that saying yes to too many projects without adequate time to deal with them is likely to do damage.

Power of "no"

"No," of course, is simply a word that describes a decision. But too many people associate it with stopping negotiations, indeed killing them, when it can also be a springboard for discussion, Mr. Camp says.

Any form of negotiation, from deciding where to go for lunch to closing million-dollar deals, rarely stops after one party says "no." Your lunch buddy nixes the festive special at Swiss Chalet. How about that Thai place? You can't possibly take on one more project this week. What about next week?

How to Say "no"

Learning how to say "no" effectively takes confidence and practice, says Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner of Rosenzweig & Company Inc., a senior level executive search firm in Toronto.

"The fact is, you can say "no" to your boss if your reasons are good. In fact, you should say "no" if the alternative would cause potential damage down the road," he says.

There are bad ways to say "no." Complaining that a task isn't "part of my official job description," won't fly. Neither will, "this assignment is too hard." Instead, use more positive vocabulary such as "Here are the other important projects I'm working on. They leave me with little time to handle this new one well." Or, "If I take this assignment on, it will cause harm to my other work." If you really want to drive your point home, keep a written list of your projects handy. Just be sure the person asking doesn't have a longer list.

Yes Man

Not everyone agrees that saying "no" makes you a better employee. Glen Stone, public affairs director for the Toronto Board of Trade, says he avoids saying "no." "Yes" is more fulfilling.

" 'Yes' has gotten me a reputation as a helpful person. 'Yes' has gotten me into projects that I might not have considered. It has given me chances to learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. It has also gotten me into trouble on occasion," he admits, saying he can get swamped with work.

When he does have to say "no," the word, "but..." usually follows as in, "No, but here's somebody else to talk to." Or, "No, but I can do it tomorrow."

Not all yeses are created equal, either, says Mr. Stone. "The polite 'yes' is the one you use because you don't want to say 'no.' It's not a real 'yes' unless you can follow up and deliver. In fact, if you're saying 'yes' and then not following through, that's worse than saying 'no,' " he says.


One of the best reasons to say "no", however, is also the most counterintuitive. Say it and people will respect you, says Mr. Rosenzweig. Recently a potential client approached his company about an executive search file. When he deferred due to a conflict of interest, he says he built a better relationship for the long haul.

"They see you're not out for the quick money grab. Instead, you're offering productive solutions that will build something meaningful," he says.

Client requests can be particularly sticky. You want the business, but you don't want every job, particularly if you've got too much work.

Before saying yes, Mr. Camp says, ask the question, "What's in it for me?" If the answer is, "nothing," take a pass.

The upside

'No' maintains the status quo. It gives you a chance to work through an issue before you agree to a change.

Jim Camp, author of No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home

The downside

'No' can be emotional. If you're emotional during negotiations, that's often when things get derailed.

Jay Rosenzweig, managing partner of Rosenzweig & Company Inc., a senior level executive search firm in Toronto.