How to say ’no’ to your boss when you can’t stop saying yes

Close-up image of female hands open or close laptop on white table, work-life balance, working from home

I was just sitting down to write this article when a friend called. She’s a Human Resources Director who struggles to say no to her boss, the CEO.

She described how working eleven-hour days and most weekends is proving physically and emotionally costly to her. Yet despite this, she still doesn’t feel comfortable to push back or say no.

Do you recognise this in yourself or your colleagues? Even though many women have climbed the rungs into senior positions and enjoy successful careers, too many of us still find it difficult to say no.

Before I offer some practical suggestions on how to break this habit, let’s look at why saying yes is often the default position.

Why do you say yes?

Because it’s easy to say yes

Just as you’re thinking I really don’t have time… there go my plans for the weekend… surely you could ask someone else!… that three-letter word is up in the air, well on its journey to your boss’s ear, and there’s no way to call it back.

To be liked

Hands-up if you consider yourself a people-pleaser. As children we were socialised to respect our elders, be polite and considerate. Some of us were taught that other people’s needs are more important than our own. And we were praised when we accommodated other people’s wishes.

For your professional development

Perhaps you see every request as a chance to develop new skills. Perhaps you’ve been told to raise your profile at work and become more visible so you get considered for future promotions. Saying yes to your boss is one way to do this. 

The need to be needed

You might secretly like being the person your boss comes to first: the idea that they couldn’t survive without you. It’s a sign that you are trusted to do a good job. And you feel safer if you can feed the belief that you are indispensable.

Are you susceptible to Super-Helper Syndrome?

If you’re finding it difficult to say no, it could be a sign that you’re experiencing the Super-Helper Syndrome – a compulsion to help others, even at the cost of neglecting your own needs. If that’s you, then it’s the result of some deeply held beliefs about why you should help everyone and why your own needs don’t matter. It’s by unpacking those beliefs that you can learn to protect your own boundaries without feeling guilty. That’s a bigger project, but for now, here are some tactics for you to build the courage to push back in a respectful manner.

Assertiveness

Explain how you feel. Is it possible your boss doesn’t even know they are asking too much of you? If you haven’t been communicating assertively, they can’t be expected to know. If your boss is a reasonable person, explain your predicament, remind them you take pride in your work and want to be helpful. Then tell them that taking on this much impacts the quality of what you deliver. On the other hand, if your boss is a tyrant, you either need to stand up to them (see below for tips), or acknowledge that they’re unlikely to change. That leaves you with two choices, to put up with it, or quit.

Fail-proof options for how to push back

Actively listen to their perspective: Use their words in your response to demonstrate you’ve understood: I can appreciate you are also under pressure at the moment

Don’t apologise: I’d like to help but I have an appointment at 18.30 and need to leave on time. If you need to, repeat your position (without apologising).

Redirect the request: The best person to help you with this would be X

Buy time: I’ll have to check my diary first, then get back to you

Use assertive non-verbals: Keep breathing, remain quite still (i.e. don’t fidget, flick your hair or nod in agreement), make good eye contact, use silences to your advantage. Low status body-language often compounds the problem for those who say yes too easily.

Believe it yourself: If you believe what you are saying without feeling guilty, it will all be more authentic and others will take you more seriously.

While saying yes to requests for help can benefit your career or self-esteem in the short term, it’s pretty clear that most of the other consequences for you are negative – you are the one who ends up suffering. It might help you to remember one thing when you are next being asked for help: your ultimate responsibility is not to your boss, is not your employer, is not to your team, it is to yourself… to looking after your own needs, protecting your own boundaries, and asserting your human rights. Because if you aren’t doing these things who is going to?

About the author

Jess Baker is a Chartered Psychologist and co-author of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide for Compassionate People (Flint Books, hardback, £18.99).

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