Your manager comes to you in a panic and asks you to fill in for Sharon, who will be out of town all next week. Your first thought is, “Why me?” Yet, despite your frustration, you smile and say, “No problem.” Your boss is making the request, after all, so refusal is not an option. Right?
Not necessarily. In some cases, “Sorry, I can’t” may actually be the most appropriate response. Dubious about this claim? Here are some examples of situations in which it might make sense to say no and suggestions for how to turn down the boss diplomatically.
“It looks like Joe can’t make the deadline again. Can you handle it?”
The situation: Whenever a colleague falls short on an important assignment, your supervisor looks to you to save the day. Initially, being the go-to person was flattering. But having to constantly step in at the last minute is forcing you to put in extra hours so you can get your own work done.
The solution: If your boss is in a bind and needs your help, stepping up is the right thing to do and can earn you valuable bonus points. Above all, you don’t want to leave her hanging. However, if these situations arise regularly, to the point where they begin to interfere with your regular assignments, you may need to start pushing back.
Refusing to lend a hand in a crisis will only make you look bad. Also, keep in mind that your supervisor may not realize how often you’ve been tapped or how long it takes you to step in and resolve an issue. Rather than a flat no, agree to help, and set the stage for preventing similar fire drills in the future. The next time your boss approaches you seeking emergency assistance, you might say, “Of course — I’ll help. But, as you know, I’ve had to cover for others a lot lately, and it’s affecting my other work. Once we get through this project, can we talk about how to better accommodate these types of requests in the future?”
“Can you turn this around by [insert unreasonable deadline]?”
The situation: Your supervisor has just asked you to complete something you know you can’t deliver in the desired timeframe. But you realize you’re the best person for the task, and you don’t want to disappoint your boss. The gears in your mind start whirring furiously: “Maybe if I push these other assignments to the back burner, skip this afternoon’s meeting and work overtime, I could make it happen. At least, I think so.”
The solution: Stop. If it will take moving the stars and the moon to meet a deadline, you need to have a conversation with your manager. Tell your manager, “I’m happy to work on this, but I’m worried about the deadline you set. Is there any flexibility there?” Then, explain why you feel the timing will be problematic. For example, maybe you already have other pressing deadlines to meet or you know the task will require more effort than your boss assumes.
Ideally, this frank discussion will lead to one of the following outcomes: Your boss will 1) adjust the deadline; 2) ask another employee to handle it; or 3) team you up with a colleague so you can still be involved with, but aren’t solely responsible for, the project.
“Sorry, but I’m going to need you to work late again. OK?”
The situation: The boss in “Office Space” asks his employees to work ridiculous hours, and it’s a running joke in the film. However, in real life, when your manager has the same expectation, it’s not so amusing.
The solution: Most professionals understand that there will be times when they must stay late, come in early or take work home to meet key deadlines and objectives. But when these requests become routine, you should speak up. Putting in extra hours every day can quickly lead to burnout.
However, approach this subject delicately. Even though working longer hours can be tiresome and inconvenient, it may be necessary to meet current objectives. Remember, too, that many firms are still working with lean teams. Your boss could be looking to you for extra support, because he has no other choice at the moment.
Therefore, you might say to your manager, “I know we’re all working a lot of extra time lately. I must be honest, though, and tell you that these hours are becoming difficult for me to maintain. Will we need to keep this pace much longer? If so, could we talk about ways that might help me achieve a better work/life balance during this period?”
It’s never easy to say no to your boss. But in some situations it’s necessary. Even the best managers can fail to recognize when they’re asking too much of their employees. Yes, sometimes you must grin and bear it when asked to do something you don’t like. But that doesn’t mean you must agree to unreasonable requests without question — even when they come from the top.
By Robert Half International