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How to Say “No” to the Boss

In a law firm, the managing partner is the face of your business. It’s hard enough to say no to the person signing your paycheck, but even more so when their name is the same as the firm’s. Ideally, you should not have to fear retaliation for giving legitimate feedback, but until you give it, you will likely have that small seed of doubt planting roots in the back of your mind.

Shiela Mie Legaspi

It is important to remember that everyone makes mistakes — no one can make the right decision 100% of the time. Leaders are consistently busy, sometimes to the point of being outright overwhelmed by their work. The constant pressure they are under could lead to a feeling of burnout, and studies have shown that burnout can lead to poor decision-making.

When your managing partner is making a decision that is not in the company's best interests, you have to ask yourself whether you should put your foot down and say no. There will inevitably come a time when you feel that you must do so, but the most critical thing isn’t what you say — it’s how you say it.

BE CONFIDENT AND ARMED WITH DATA

The most important thing you can do when saying no to your managing partner is to be confident. Confidence does not necessarily mean an opinion is valid, though studies have shown that people are more likely and willing to listen to advice given to them by someone who appears confident. Furthermore, if you aren’t sure of your opinion, should you be countering your boss in the first place? If you are hesitant about your position, take the time to reconsider and do more research until you are truly confident.

One of the best ways to build this confidence is by supporting your position with hard data. Opinions only have to be disagreed with, whereas hard metrics have to be discredited. Think of it as providing evidence of the validity of your position; it is best to present data to prove your position, not to disprove theirs. (Don’t focus on them being wrong, as this could be perceived as hostility.)

“Instead of something to be afraid of, saying no to your managing partner can be an opportunity to introduce innovative alternatives to what they have proposed.”

Transparency is also essential in these scenarios. People often expect business leaders to be always functioning at full capacity, which in turn can cause them to come off as somewhat high-strung. They may misinterpret you coming to them with an opposing idea as having a vested interest or ulterior motives. By being transparent with your managing partner, they can know that you have the company’s best interests in mind and that your advice can be trusted.

However, trust is something that goes both ways, so you must first be able to show respect for the contributions that your managing partner has given to the organization. After all, they have put in a lot of work to get the firm where it is, and that needs to be acknowledged with respect. If you approach your managing partner in a disrespectful manner, not only will they not listen to your advice, but they could also begin to mistrust you completely. 

Indeed, the best way to say no is with appreciation and gratitude. Just as you hope they will show their gratitude to you for making the best decision for the company, show your appreciation for them and the leadership they have provided thus far. Nobody is perfect, and a good leader should know that. If you correct them kindly and thankfully, they will be more receptive to what you have to say.

SAYING “NO” CAN HELP YOUR FIRM

While tempting to go along with whatever the managing partner says all the time, it’s ultimately a mistake. There are dangers to having “yes-people” in business, those who never challenge anything the boss says. However, growth is all about innovation, and innovation cannot occur without the stimulation of a challenge to enact meaningful change.

Instead of something to be afraid of, saying “no” can be an opportunity to introduce innovative alternatives to what your managing partner has proposed. Being a creative problem solver can put you in an even more favorable position with your managing partner as the mind behind the proposed solution that helped the company through a trying time.

Society is so caught up with the idea that saying or being told no is a bad thing when, in reality, it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of examples in which saying no is not only necessary but conducive to the company’s growth. If you can approach saying no the right way, it can do far more good overall in the long run.