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micro skill

This is part of a series looking at micro skills – changes that employees can make to improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Read about the 2018 winners of the award at

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How often do you say yes to your manager when you would rather say no?

Many employees do. Without context as to why saying no is good, some employees can feel like it’s impossible or risky to their career or job stability to say no to their manager.

This micro skill explores the application of “no” and how to use it effectively with a manager.

More employees feel stressed and anxious in today’s high-demand workplaces. This is a risk for employers because employees not learning to say no can show up in increased anxiety levels and poorer performance. The Conference Board of Canada reported that anxiety alone is costing Canada $17.3-billion per year due to lost productivity.

Employees who know how to monitor their stress load and know when and how to say no are healthier and happier over the long term. Setting boundaries is good for employees because it reduces their stress load and it’s good for employers because it reduces the costs associated with mental illness, such as lost time and presenteeism – when an employee shows up to work but is unwell and unproductive.


In a digital-driven information society, things move and change fast. Machines are often key to businesses. But people aren’t machines; they have a limit as to how hot and long they can run before breaking.

If you say yes when you want to say no, you need to understand why.

Here are some examples:

– You say yes out of fear of not seeming committed, a desire to please or wanting to impress your manager.

– You wanted to say no because your were feeling stressed and overworked or knew the work would eat into your personal time.


Jill, the shift manager, can give a set of instructions in 15 seconds that can take Jack two hours to do. If Jack already has eight hours of work and he agrees to one more task for the day there are consequences. His stress level may increase and he may feel a need to move faster, increasing his risk for mistakes and even accidents.

Employees like Jack can feel powerless to say no, which can impact their morale and loyalty. It also increases risk for mental health issues such as anxiety and burnout.

Setting a professional boundary is not a sign of disrespect or poor work attitude. Neither is saying no a sign of defiance when done through an open, transparent lens. The key when saying no is to provide reason and context. Keep emotions out of it.

Here are some examples:

Manager: “Jack, I need you to get the ABC report completed by end of day, please.”

Jack’s internal dialogue: “This report will take a minimum of two hours to complete and it’s 1 p.m. Before the end of the day I also have the XYZ and DEF reports to get done.”

Jack’s external response: “No, I can’t get the ABC report done today because you asked me to do the XYZ and DEF reports before the end of the day, which is 4:30 p.m. for me. But if you want to move one of those reports to tomorrow, I could do the ABC report today.”


When applying the word no, it’s not about saying no for the sake of saying no. The purpose is to set a boundary or to reframe expectations.

Setting the stage to say no – Build rapport and trust with your manager. They have pressure and expectations on them as well – and can have good days and bad. Sometimes a manager who is feeling pressure can push employees or expect more than is realistic in one day. The sooner you can build a trusting relationship with your manager where you know they trust your judgment, it will become easier for you to say no. The end goal for setting professional boundaries and using the word no is to maintain your health, safety, engagement and long-term productivity.

Talk to your manager about saying no – Having an open discussion with your manager about saying no is one way to bring this issue to their attention. One example of a question to ask is, “How do you suggest I say no to a request when I don’t believe I have the capacity, time, energy or capability to complete it?” A manager who cares about you and wants a collaborative team will be open to you self-advocating and setting boundaries.

When saying no, be clear why – Don’t just say, “No, I can’t do that,” as this will raise red flags or questions. When you believe it makes sense to say no, explain why and provide an alternative, if possible. Sometimes there may not be an option, as a certain task might have a particular deadline that can’t be moved; it must be done first. If you’re an employee who produces results, is respectful, cares about their work and has a good relationship with their manager, the word no will be viewed as effective decision-making to help you and the organization be successful.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

>You can find all the stories in this series at: