What to Do When You Can’t Say YES and You Can’t Say NO To Your Boss


Saying no to your boss?

When new clients have a less-than-ideal relationship with their supervisors, I ask questions about the dynamics and how they communicate with each other. I often find that their bosses ask for things they can’t agree to do, which leads to conflict. Both individuals think they are right and refuse to budge, at the risk of damaging their professional relationship.

Higher education is a field that values people’s input, relies on participatory governance, and strives to treat people fairly and equitably (at least philosophically if not in actuality). Therefore, managers don’t shy away from expressing their opinions, and often forget that when their Presidents “ask” for something, they are not really asking, they are telling them what is expected, and they have to find a way to make it work.

If you are asked to do something illegal or unethical, I don’t blame you for saying no. You must have boundaries and act with integrity because no job is worth compromising your core values. But let’s not jump to conclusions. Requests are rarely black and white and there are tactful ways to find a healthy compromise that can satisfy both parties.  

Gain a better understanding

You need to understand two things: (1) the way you respond can improve or damage your reputation and your career, so you need to be strategic, and (2) you don’t know the whole story and need to listen first.

I can’t emphasize this enough: your role is not to focus solely on preventing liability and being correct. Your job is also to support your supervisor’s vision and do the best you can to make him or her successful. When you immediately say no to something, you show yourself as uncollaborative, unsupportive, or lacking creativity and resourcefulness. You risk being seen as an obstacle to success and the consequences can be terrible.

You must ask more questions in order to fully understand what your boss needs. You see, when someone asks for a specific task, it is because in their mind, that task is the best way to create a particular outcome, but you can help them find alternatives. Always seek to understand what outcomes you boss is trying to create and you can find a more suitable strategy.


The two most common situations I encounter are (1) unrealistic expectations, and (2) breaking rules.

(1)   Imagine that you work in institutional research and your VP asks you at the last minute to provide a complex data set that he wants to use for a presentation to the Board of Trustees/Regents. His request sends you into a state of panic (and indignation) because it would take 15 to 20 hours to prepare the data.

Before your blood pressure goes through the rough, please realize that what he is telling you isn’t “I want the data set I asked for” but “I want your help to deliver a quality presentation that will make me look good”. He asked for the wrong thing. The data set is too complex. Help him ask for the right thing. Ask what message he wants to share, what specific data points will be helpful, and help him simplify his approach as much as possible. You might end up spending 20 minutes pulling data you already have, and also making this entire project much easier for him.

(2)   Imagine you are asked to use grant dollars to pay for something that is not an allowable expenditure under that grant. You know that if you say yes and you get audited, you will be in trouble. And to be honest, you are upset and taking this request very personally because you are sick and tired of people wanting to use your grant dollars instead of getting their own.

Before you even begin to discuss where else funds may be available for the expenditure in question, ask about the purpose. In most cases, the activity is just one of many possible ways to get something done. You can find an alternative that doesn’t cost anything at all. For example, if you are asked to pay for brochures, mailings, and postage, it’s time to stop doing business like it’s 1990 and start using online resources that take a few hours to set up but don’t cost anything (if your institution has staff that can easily handle it).

If you can’t find an alternative and the task is indeed necessary, you certainly can help your supervisor get more creative about the ways to fund it (e.g. leveraging efforts and resources, getting new partners, getting donations, raising funds, finding volunteers, etc.)

Blueprint to finding alternatives

It’s quite simple, really. All you need to do is to focus on what outcomes your boss wants to create, so that you can discover an array of possibilities. The second part is to question all assumptions.

Try it! Imagine a difficult situation where you feel you can’t say yes and you also can’t say no. Ask yourself the following questions:

What is it really about? What is the motivation behind the request? What is your supervisor trying to make happen?

Who else could help with this?

What other resources might be available?

What assumptions may be untrue?

What would be an acceptable alternative?

In summary, when you are asked to do something, remember that it’s important to show you are genuinely trying to help, but that it is not a black and white situation. You can find acceptable alternatives that will please all parties involved.

If you would like to work with me to discover strategies to improve your relationship with your supervisors and/or co-workers, I invite you to click here to schedule a complimentary call. Don’t stay stuck! Two brains are better than one, especially when it comes to thinking new thoughts! Let’s talk soon.

About the author: Dr. Audrey Reille has empowered thousands of professionals through one-on-one coaching, group coaching, speaking engagements, and online courses. Audrey is the go-to coach for leaders in higher education administration. She empowers them to thrive by reducing stress, optimizing strategies, improving professional relationships, and developing a strong and empowered mindset.

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