How to say "no" to your boss

I’m a recovering people pleaser.

For years, I said “yes” to every invitation to speak, attend a conference, write an article, grab coffee, and jump on a call.

One day, looking through my calendar, I realized that it was no longer mine. My time was hijacked by other people. As a result, it had become impossible for me to do my very best work.

Too often we assume “yes” is the word that’s best for our careers. We believe it will endear us to our employer and magically lead us by the hand to a plush leather seat in the executive boardroom.

Unfortunately, the glory of “yes” is a lore.

The reality is that each “yes” comes with a huge opportunity cost. Saying “yes” to a “quick” phone call or a meeting means saying “no” to everything else you could be doing in that time — including deep work on an important task that can make you indispensable to your company.

To be sure, when you’re first starting out, you need to say “yes” more often to build your reputation. But at a certain point, you can afford to say “no” more often. In fact, you can’t afford to say “yes” as frequently as you do if you want to accomplish anything extraordinary.

Saying “yes” may have gotten you where you are, but saying “no” is what will take catapult your career to the next tier of success.

But how do you say “no”?

It’s one thing to hang up on a telemarketer, but something else to say “no” to your boss.

I recommend two strategies.

First, realize that saying ‘yes’ is a voluntary choice

Before the word “yes” flies out of your mouth, simply pause. Too often, we say “yes” to a request without fully realizing what we’re getting into.

Instead of instinctively accepting a request from your boss, ask yourself, “Can I afford to say ‘yes’ right now?” If you need to buy yourself time, say, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I’ll need to check my calendar and get back to you.”

Second, you can say ‘no’ without actually saying ‘no’

Rather than firing off a blunt and blatant “no” to someone who can influence your career trajectory, try one of these three alternatives (the first two come directly from author Michael Stanier’s terrific book, The Coaching Habit):

  1. “What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?”
  2. “If I don’t have the bandwidth to do all of this, which part would you have me do?”
  3. “I want to do a great job, but given the other projects on my plate, I couldn’t do this one justice.”

As Stanier explains, more likely than not, your boss will:

  1. Provide a good, helpful answer to your questions (this is a win for you).
  2. Find someone else who’ll say “yes” more easily than you (also a win for you).
  3. Tell you to do it anyway (in which case, you end up with the same result as a “yes”).

In the end, saying “no” is about deciding whether you want to be known for the quantity of your work or the quality of it.

Do you want to be known as the person who always says “yes” but produces inconsistent results?

Or do you want to be known as the person who always follows through on your commitments and delivers results of the highest quality?

A wholehearted “no” is better than a half-hearted “yes”.

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor who writes about contrarian thinking. Join his tribe and learn how to be right when others are wrong.