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Saying "No" to Your Boss

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

After you make a Not Doing List, fear will quickly set in. Fear that you can't actually skip, dodge, delete, or not do the things on your list...because your boss would never let you. I hear comments like this frequently: “but my boss doesn’t think like this” or “my boss thinks everything is important” or “my boss doesn’t let me say ‘no’ to low value things” or “my boss isn’t focused so I can’t be either.” Frankly, these are all excuses for not shifting your time to the most important work. We likely use these excuses because we don’t understand our role and our bosses role well enough.

In fact, using a Not Doing List correctly will significantly up your leadership credibility with your boss. Let's see how.

Too often, we view our boss as someone who should guide us and give us marching orders. That is an outdated and narrow mindset. You and your boss should be setting each other up for mutual success. You should aim to guide yourself, and test your priorities and ideas with your boss for feedback. You should also be passing your boss critical information to help them excel in their role. Part of this mutual success is attained by making sure you both spend time on the right things. Think about it like this: you’re not actually telling your boss “no.” You’re telling them there is something more valuable you should be spending time on. By saying “no” you’re actually trying to help your boss be more successful by spending your time on more important things.

Speak in terms of shared goals, time constraints, trade-offs, and the need to focus. This will make it a lot easier for you to communicate what you’ve chosen not to do. Stay laser focused on how saying “no” is actually allowing you to say “yes” to something else that is even more important. Your boss needs to know about the trade-offs you’re making in the background in order to focus on the goals they set out. Show them how you’re reducing your time spent on low value tasks. It should enhance their total image of you. They should see it as a leadership strength.

Tell your boss about your Not Doing List and explain the concept. Ask them to look at your Not Doing List with you some weeks and ensure you’re both aligned on the trade-offs you’re making. This exercise can help you both come to agreement on what your focus areas should be.

If your boss values their time, also let them know how and when you are saving them time along the way. For example, if you can independently write the memo for them or can resolve something over email and cancel your meeting with them, do it. Then, make sure they know you saved them that time. Be subtle, but clear, by saying something like “know we were supposed to meet, but I went ahead and wrote the draft and sent it to you via email for comment instead. Thought that would save us both 30 minutes drafting from scratch.” Saving your boss time will get your kudos. You can bank that for the next time you need to tell them there is a better way for you to spend your time. This will help them trust you to say “no” more frequently.

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