Tell me if this has ever happened. You come into the office with a list of things that absolutely has to get done and you get a phone call, e-mail, “head poking in the cubicle” from your boss with some urgent task guaranteed to take you off your game and (if you’re a manager yourself) disrupt your staff. It doesn’t matter if the task makes sense or not, the fact is, it all of a sudden becomes more important than what you had to do. You set your teeth and look around for a pen, ostensibly to write your boss’ request down but perhaps — just fleetingly — you imagine hurling the pen at your boss, along with your coffee mug, keyboard and “Land of the Ozarks” paperweight your aunt Millie gave you. Your list of tasks has to wait, you now have to deal with this nice “gift” your boss dropped on your lap. Unless….
If you only knew how to say “No” and get away with it. Now, in the mahogany library of The Boss’ Club, where bosses sit around in leather wingback chairs smoking cigars and drinking single malt scotch while sharing Boss secrets and joking about the rest of humankind (e.g. you), there exists a book called simply, “The Book”, which is a list of boss secrets that are never permitted to leave the club. For if these secrets were revealed, it would be like kryptonite to Superman and bosses everywhere would be crippled. However, the last time I was at The Club, drinking two fingers of 25 yr old Dunwiddie, smoking a churchill Colibra and yucking it up with Brewster and Colyn (with a “y”), I managed to sneak into the library and tear a page out the book which explains how you can, indeed, say “No” to your boss and literally live to tell about it.
The following is taken from that page. Please do not tell other bosses I gave this to you, because I would then have my ascot removed from my neck forever, along with my subscription to Inner Yachtsman.
10. Say “Yes”
Face it. Sometimes you have to pick your battles and this time, you need to suck it up and do what is asked. Now, if you do it without complaint, it gets filed away in the “wow, this person actually followed through on what I asked without whining” part of The Boss’ brain. Say ‘yes’ five times and you get one ‘no’ without questions (if asked politely and preceded by a “I’d love to but…”). I don’t know why the math works that way, but it does.
Now, there are corollaries to this:
a) Specify what is being asked to the finite detail and Say “Yes” to that.
The Boss comes in and says, “I’d like to see the forecast for Hopkins’ unit by the end of the day.” You say, “Sure thing, Boss. Do you need the 50 page complete itemized report or the summary data?” “Er, summary.” “Do you want the revenue and expenses or just the operating income.” “Well, all I really need is operating…” “$54,757, Boss. Anything else?” “Ah, no, I guess not….thanks.”
b) Say “Yes” but on your terms.
The accounting department is famous for this. The Boss asks for a report by the end of the week. Accounting says, “Can we have the weekend to really do the job right? A weekend can be a lifetime.” And the boss, says, “Sure,” smug in the thought of her team slaving tirelessly through the weekend while she’s on the back nine taking Snuggs Wilkerson for twelve bucks and an eventual sidecar at the nineteenth hole. Meanwhile, Accounting is doubling down on a pair of eights at the Boredada Casino fully prepared to finish the report Monday morning to have it to the boss by noon. Everyone’s a winner.
9. The Client makes me do it!
If there’s one thing any self-respecting Boss is fearful of, it’s The Client. The Client is like the Ace of Spades in the company deck; it trumps anything, including The Boss. So, if you are working on a project for The Client that needs to get done right away, your boss needs to take 2nd place. But, be careful, you better really be working on a project for The Client, because The Boss will find out. There are spies. Everywhere.
8. Corporate makes me do it!
Functional department leaders (Finance, Systems, etc) have turned this into an art form. “Corporate” can have a trumping effect, but usually it just gives the Boss a headache. “I’d love to, but, ol’ Poltzwine in Taxation is pushing my eyes out to get the Wilkesham-Bennett audit done, which is the fifth audit we’ve had to do this quarter and which makes SOX seem like a stroll through the park, what with the fact that we have to reconcile our fixed assets, our a/r books, our a/p books, and our face books……blah, blah, blah.” Eyes to the back of the head, please.
7. Say “Yes” if you can get to say “No” to something else
The old chestnut. This is where you give The Boss a choice. “Yes, Boss, I can update the powerpoint for you right now, or I can continue to finish this proposal for Xena who’s going to pitch the Mega account this afternoon. Which one should I do?” You tell your Boss, subtly, that you only have 100% of your time available and that something needs to fall off if her task is to be done. Just be careful it’s not overused, otherwise The Boss will think you have no ability to prioritize on your own and your future career aspirations could be in jeopardy.
6. Under Advisement
This can work when the task that The Boss is asking you to do requires time and resources. Tell The Boss, “It’s a great idea! I’ll get the propeller heads in R&D to draw up a prototype and model out some ROIs for us to look at.” This gives you the gift of time and helps everyone with prioritization because even The Boss would like to see if something makes sense before spending a lot of money on it. It also gives you the opportunity to have The Boss kill the request sooner than later. Simply go to the propeller heads and say, “Look, I’m not looking for a detailed analysis, but, back of the napkin, what do you think of the The Boss’ gizmo gadget. Does it have legs or will it not get off the ground?” (Note: mixing metaphors for some reason often confuses people to think you know what you’re talking about.) If the propeller heads don’t think it’s worth it, put their thoughts in a nice cohesive summary with a statement at the end saying that, “Even though the p-heads feel this is a total waste of time, I’m going to try one thing further.” Wait a week and send a note to The Boss saying, “I’m sorry I looked into the one thing and couldn’t find something to validate doing this project. Any other suggestions?” Typically, if The Boss sees you didn’t stop at the first “No” you ran into, you’re OK. However, if the p-heads do find it’s a good project, you then are in a solid position to engage item 7 above.
5. Stroll down the Rabbit Hole
When done correctly, this is a beauty to behold. This is where, you take The Boss’ idea to it’s maximum, exposing it’s inanity. “Outsourcing our bolts operation to China? What a great idea! Boy, that’s why you get paid the big bucks, fella! We can save 200 basis points, at least, by doing that. Wow! Of course, the manufacturing clients we have won’t be able to work with us any more because the unions have agreements with them preventing the use of offshore parts, but, it’s only 30% of our business. I’m sure we’d make that up in no time. Three to five years max!” You only need to go until The Boss’ throat turns red, his breathing becomes shallow and he starts blinking rapidly. Leave your thought hanging and he’ll pick up on it and say something like, “Ah, you know, Jenkins, I think there’s a few bugs to work out first. Let me think a little more on this and I’ll get back to you.”
4. Penetrate the inner circle
Every Boss has one or two people that has the permission to say almost anything. Sometimes it’s one of his lieutenants or his assistant or someone in customer service who knew him when he was a snot-nosed brat in the mailroom. Take the time to find out who those people are. Be nice to them. Very nice. Then, one, day, you might find yourself next to one of those people at the elevator, saying “Boy, I don’t understand why The Boss is making me do this by the end of the day. I’ll be here all night and miss my son’s solo at the fifth grade choir.” If you’re lucky, the Inner Circle, will say something like, “That’s funny, I don’t think The Boss really needs that until next week. Hold on, let me see what I can do.” Give it twenty minutes and you could be golden.
3. Hug your boss
Ok, not literally (perish the thought). But take some time to talk to your boss about what interests her (outside of work) or about work theories or about anything that enables you to engage The Boss at a different level at different times than when you are presenting something or she is asking for something. Every once in a while, try to find something The Boss did that you liked and say that to her. (I know, it’s tough, but with time, luck and imagination, I’m sure you’ll find something.) That extra relationship may not guarantee you the ability to say “No”, but it certainly helps.
2. Ride the Bronco
If your boss can sometimes run over the emotional deep end, you may have a great opportunity to guilt him into withdrawing his request before you even have a chance to say “yes” or “no”. Simply push a few buttons to get him into one of his rants and, as it ends, say nothing, absolutely nothing, place your pen on your paper very deliberately and lean back in your chair, nodding your head slowly in agreement. Let The Boss wallow in his rant and, as the silence deepens and you don’t respond, The Boss will feel guilty and begin to negotiate with himself. “Look, McKinley, you know how this gets to me. I just don’t understand why we can’t hit our numbers.” Silence. “Now, I know you have a lot on your plate and what I’m asking is probably more than I should.” Uncomfortable Silence. “Ok, Ok, why don’t I see if Smotts can handle this and you just keep up the good work you’re doing, OK?” Ah, the wild beast becomes the meek hare.
If you are able to do this, you have earned a black belt in the art of managing up the ladder. This is where The Boss comes in with something for you to do and you turn it around so The Boss actually ends up doing all the work. Here’s an example (listen and learn, grasshopper):
The Boss comes in and says, “Wheezle, I need you to get three referrals by the end of the day!” Wheezle says, “Sure thing, Boss! Say, didn’t I over hear you say you finally beat Mr. Wilkerson on the Olde Pinenut course last weekend?” “Yeah, ha, ha, drained a forty-four footer!” “Wow! You must have been on fire! Who was in your foursome?” “Well, Wilkerson, Brewster and Colyn…..With a ‘y’.” “That’s a crew. I bet the jokes were flying all day.” “You betcha! I wish I could remember em all.” “Yeah, wow….you know? I’ve been trying to see Wilkerson, Brewster and Colyn for the past couple years and I just haven’t been able to get an appointment.” “You don’t say.” “Yeah…..” Silence. “You know what, Wheezle? I can get you in. Let me work on it.” “Oh, that would be great, Boss. Here’s a few dates I’m available, at least right now. Do you think you could get those appointments together by the end of the day? You know how fast calendars fill up around here.” “Don’t I know it, Wheezle. Hey, let me get right on this. It’s a great excuse to brush up on those jokes again. I’ll be right back.”
Who’s the master and who’s the pupil?
Now, you might be asking yourself why would I risk getting my ascot in a sling and losing a subscription to my favorite mag by telling you this? Because I am concerned that, at times like these when the economy is under stress and we all are under stress, we stop being honest with ourselves and we start telling each other what we think the other really wants to hear.
From my own perspective, there’s two problems with this. One, the only thing I really want to hear is, “Wow! You look great! Are you losing weight?” (And no one in their right mind has said that to me in a while.)
The second problem is that when people are not up front with each other, everyone loses. If there are issues that need to be resolved, hiding them under the covers won’t make them go away; it will most like only make them worse. If you are being asked to do things that don’t make sense or keeps you from doing what you really need to be doing, then have a good candid dialogue with the right people. Getting real results requires being real with each other. If an organization is to succeed, if you and everyone around you is in a position to say “Yes” to success, then perhaps sometimes it needs to start by saying “No”. In the end, the task you’ve asked to do may need to get done–or the organization may take a course you are not crazy about–but not without the clear understanding and alignment of everyone.
Including The Boss.