Saying “No” to a Superior

D.H.R. Sarma
Human beings would rather say "yes" than "no" because saying no is stressful.

Human beings would rather say "yes" than "no" because saying no is stressful.

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“Yes, I can take care of that.”

“Sure, no problem.”

“Absolutely. My pleasure.”

Sound familiar? If yes, that’s no surprise. In most of our dealings, human beings would rather say yes than no because saying no is stressful. And when the person at the receiving end of that no is a superior, the stress is doubled. So what is a poor underling to do?

There is this old quip of responding, “how high?” when the boss says, “jump!” Many organizations are still run that way, making life difficult for those who cannot, would not, or should not even do the proverbial “jump” in the first place.

Is the Request Ethical?

So how do we tackle this age-old problem? First, decide if what you are being asked to do is unethical. If so, the answer definitely should be no and stated politely in a non-aggressive tone. You might explain how company policy does not permit what is being asked and jointly look for an alternative ethical course to achieve the intended result.

Is the Request Negotiable?

If ethics issues are not involved, then consider the request as negotiable. First, buy time if possible: delay returning an email or phone call (but only for a reasonable time), allowing time for you to think and study the issue, rather than answering immediately just for the sake of answering. If you are overloaded, consider and then negotiate scope and timing. If you lack the skillset required, let the requester know that clearly. Remember, the answer yes can be framed as just that—a simple yes—while every no has to be qualified and explained professionally.

No comes in many forms. Example: Can you go to DC to see our client tomorrow? A no answer can take the form of

  • “Can it be done next week?”
  • “Is a conference call OK?”
  • “Is there someone better suited (or equally skilled) who may be able to go?”
  • “Would it be a growth opportunity for someone else?”

The list goes on. These options fall under the category no, but they are more palatable and generally better received. Putting the proverbial foot down sounds glamorous but seldom yields positive outcomes. You should never appear to be shirking your responsibility. Practice diplomacy, tact, and poise. Practice saying no in its various forms and in less threatening circumstances, such as in a private conversation with a trusted colleague.

Why Are You Saying No?

Finally, before saying no, ask yourself why you are saying it. Is the request reasonable? How would your no be perceived? Are you being petty? Is the request one that you yourself would make of a subordinate? Those considerations will lead you to the correct response.

Saying yes and no can both be easy, but they should both be done appropriately. Achieving the appropriate no is admittedly a challenge. If you find yourself in a no situation too many times, think about the company culture. If your workplace culture is “do not say yes until I am finished” culture, and no in any form is not tolerated, it may be time to look for more enlightened management.

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D.H.R. Sarma

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D.H.R. Sarma, PhD, is a patent agent in the legal group at the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization in West Lafayette, Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of PRF.