The power of ‘no’: how to go against your boss

Nov 24, 2022

6 mins

The power of ‘no’: how to go against your boss
Jamie Broadway

Writer, translator and journalist

For such a tiny word, ‘no’ packs a punch in any language. Yet many people have trouble saying it or even going against the majority opinion at work – particularly if it means taking on the boss. Being able to express disagreement is important for setting boundaries and keeping your wellbeing and mental health in good shape. It also helps to ensure that teams are more efficient and better solutions to problems are found. But, if you are not used to being assertive, how do you know what to do? To help you to find your voice, we got some advice from two experts in this area. They explain why speaking out is difficult, why it’s important and how you can do it well.

Why do we struggle to challenge others?

Monica Pascual, a high-performance coach for elite sportspeople and business leaders, says it is normal to be intimidated in such situations given the hierarchical nature of modern businesses. “We look at our boss and we believe that, professionally, we’re far removed from that position. We’re scared of making mistakes and what people may think of us,” says Pascual. Unfortunately, this can end up adding to your workload, she adds. “When we don’t know how to say ‘no’ – because we’re scared or when we simply assume that we have to do what our boss says – we’re burdening ourselves with work that we may not have time to do.” Accepting situations or opinions that we don’t agree with can lead to a range of unhelpful feelings. These include:

If you want to avoid this happening, you need to establish priorities with your boss so that you don’t take on too much work, but can manage your time well, be productive and work at an optimal level. This will help you and the company, according to Pascual.

Xavier Montero, a coach and member of the department of psychology in organizations and work at the Official College of Psychology of Catalonia, agrees that being forthright is important – even when it isn’t easy. “We fear the unknown and the reactions of others. But this is similar to [the feelings you have] when you like someone and you don’t dare to tell them. You have to push ahead because if you don’t take the first step, someone else might,” he says. In other words, if you’re unable to express your needs, your opinions or your feelings, someone else will take the initiative and you may miss out.

Setting boundaries: the importance of being assertive

To get started, it’s worth asking yourself how assertive you are in general. Being assertive, which is linked to self-esteem, allows you to express views that may have negative connotations, turning down a request or simply saying ‘no’. It’s worth being assertive with your superiors from the beginning even during a job interview. It will help you set boundaries and make it easier to discuss key issues such as pay, availability to work and handling potential overtime. “The interviewer may think that if the candidate isn’t concerned about their own pocket and their own wellbeing, why would they be concerned about the company? If everything is clear from the beginning, the relationship will work,” Montero says.

Wanting to fit in or trying to please others isn’t unusual, but if this urge takes precedence, you run the risk of becoming a people pleaser. To avoid this, you have to challenge that fear of being judged, of getting things wrong or receiving a negative response. It helps if you understand that your boss, despite having different responsibilities, is part of the same company and you have a common aim. “At the end of the day, we all have to row in the same direction,” Pascual says. “If their response is positive, we’ll have saved ourselves time and speculation, and if it’s negative, we’ll be able to get moving and start looking for other solutions.”

The benefits of saying ‘no’

As Pascual points out, one of the main advantages of saying ‘no’ to something you disagree with or that you believe has to change is that it allows you to optimize procedures and be more productive. Don’t waste your time criticizing situations or decisions behind people’s backs because that will only create a negative atmosphere.

In the long run, being assertive will help you to create a strong working environment, to improve relationships with your colleagues and to negotiate tasks efficiently. That is because you will:

Even knowing the benefits, however, you may fear that the way people view you will change or that you’ll be labeled as problematic. “This will depend a lot on the company’s management style and also the manager’s. But, it will likely help you to gain recognition as an employee, as well as building your confidence,” Montero says. Pascual adds, “The issue lies in separating what people are going to think about you personally and showcasing what you’re going to bring professionally.”

You’ve been hired because you possess certain skills and expertise, so you should use them. Being assertive is difficult, but it’s crucial if you are to become empowered and boost your standing within the company. And, it will probably help you to bolster your relationship with your boss as they may see you as a responsible and committed person with disruptive thinking that can be beneficial to the company, and not simply someone with no initiative.

How to speak up effectively?

When the time comes to tell your boss you don’t agree with them, there are a few factors to consider if you want to come out of the conversation stronger and to ensure your relationship doesn’t suffer. You should:

1. Assess the risks – and rewards

Give some thought to what you will say before disagreeing with anyone, says Pascual. “Define a clear objective and determine what you want to talk to your boss about and what you want to get out of your conversation,” he says. Why are you doing this? Why do you feel the need to generate conflict about this issue in particular? Are you doing this because you want to be seen as an expert regarding a certain issue? “You have to assess and evaluate what there is to gain and what there is to lose, look for a balance between rewards and risks, and ask yourself what you’re willing to accept,” Montero says. “The worker has to always know what type of company they’re in and understand the rules of the game there.”

2. Get your timing right

No one likes to be ambushed, so avoid approaching your boss in a corridor or after a team meeting. You have to find the right time and place to have the conversation. If possible, set up a meeting or schedule a coffee with them. Preferably, use email to finalize the details. Stick to company protocol. If you have to go through a colleague to set up the meeting, make sure to do that.

3. Be respectful

Your attitude is important, says Pascual. Approach the conversation with the view that you’re just going to have a chat to find common ground so that you can all be more effective and productive at work, both on an individual and a collective level. Ideally, the conversation will strengthen your relationship too. To achieve this, be respectful and empathetic:

  • Eliminate terms such as “fight” or “argument” from your head and don’t see the conversation as a confrontation or a battle with winners and losers.
  • Listen carefully and focus on their message. You’ll have time to challenge their points afterwards.
  • Don’t try to impose yourself, interrupt or raise your voice. If you do this, you may get what you want, but you’ll also lose your manager’s respect.

4. Use reasoning

If you want to win the argument, you need to have good information. Pascual says, “What matters when delivering that ‘no’ is for it to be well-argued and backed up with facts and not value judgements.” Pascual says. Montero agrees: “Any complaint or proposal has to be justified.” To do this:

  • Avoid making unfounded criticism and attacks
  • Seek to have a conversation
  • Back your arguments up with facts that justify why you’re saying ‘no’ to certain proposals and ‘yes’ to others
  • Present your requests in a clear, straightforward and honest way
  • Try to ensure that your proposal or request adds to the project
  • Be proactive and show you’re dedicated to the company

If you do this, your colleague won’t feel attacked and will see that you want to find solutions together.

5. Watch your language

It’s important for you to structure your ideas and to use the right words. Avoid starting the conversation with phrases such as “We’ve got a problem” or “I don’t agree with …” Use positive, constructive language and use the first person. Aim for your listener to engage with the conversation and for them to clear up any points that could generate more doubts or concerns for you. Finally, don’t overlook non-verbal communication, says Pascual. “What we’re not saying in words, but are thinking” can often be seen in our faces or in our mannerisms, which can be counterproductive, she adds.

6. Set out an action plan and stick to it

After your conversation, try to ensure that any necessary actions are taken. This is about reaching an agreement and, if possible, with specific steps to be followed. “If not, you’ll have wasted a precious opportunity for a productive conversation for a simple chat,” Pascual says. Follow up afterwards too, so as to be sure that you’re both honoring your commitments. If that isn’t happening, start the process again using the same formula: be assertive, pursue respectful dialogue, reason with facts – not opinions – and use good communication and negotiation skills. That way, the power of ‘no’ will start to take effect sooner rather than later.

Translated by Jamie Broadway

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Follow Welcome to the Jungle on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram, and subscribe to our newsletter to get our latest articles every day!