How to say No to the boss, and still keep your job.

By | Mar 16, 2008

As an administrative assistant, one of your most vital duties is to give appropriate feedback to the boss, and let’s face it, that feedback isn’t always positive.  So how do you tell the boss that she just can’t do something without losing your job?

Most important, you need to know your boss and her temperament.   If your boss is one who encourages feedback and values your opinion, approaching him with negative feedback is much easier.  You can simply approach her with the topic at hand and give your opinion simply and succinctly.  If your boss tends to be more defensive, you’ll have to find more creative ways to handle the situation.

Obviously, tact is an important trait in any assistant, and this is where your tact plays a big part.  Unless you have an extremely strong relationship, going to the boss and saying, “Are you crazy?  You can’t do that!”, is generally considered to be less than wise.  You need to find a way to gently convey to your boss that the vitriolic letter he wants to send to the head of the union just isn’t the most viable way to deal with the problem he’s having (to give just one example).

One very effective way to give gentle feedback is to form it as a question.  “I’m curious why you went in this direction instead of trying (whatever your suggestion would be).”  This gives the boss a chance to not only talk about why he’s moving in the direction he is, but also lets you in on his thought processes.  Sometimes, you’ll get a question back about your thoughts on the subject, opening the door for you to express your doubts about his current course.

Being a bit self-deprecating in your opening question is especially effective with the boss who always needs to be right.  If you confront that boss directly, he’ll generally just be offended that you have dared to question him.  However, if you frame the question as if you are looking for him to educate you, he’ll be able to hear and consider your input without putting walls up or getting angry at you.  Flatter the boss into thinking it was his idea to start with.

Another important aspect to remember is to give your feedback in private.  While your boss may be open to hearing your ideas (or criticisms) in private, doing it in public could be seen as an attempt to humiliate him.  Wait until after the meeting, then approach him with your thoughts.

Always remember to talk about your reasoning process.  If all you have is a gut feeling, then before you approach the boss, you need to sit down and figure out why you have that feeling.  Any time you are going to give anyone negative feedback, you need to be able to enunciate your reasoning.  This goes double and triple for talking to the boss.

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2 Comments so far
  1. Barbara Swafford (8 comments) March 18, 2008 12:05 am

    Hi Jodith,This is a tough situation.  I agree that by asking “why this” instead of “that” is a good tactic.  It takes a lot of tact and the right tone of voice.  An assistant who comes across as a “know it all”, will soon find themselves looking for another job.  Sometimes, after learning the boss’s reasoning, it opens your eyes to the “why”, and you realize the boss is actually right. 

    Barbara Swafford’s last blog post..NBOTW Shares From Years Of Experience

  2. Jodith (189 comments) March 19, 2008 5:48 am

    That’s a good point, Barbara.  Many times, the boss has considered your idea and has a reason for going the way he is.  Asking the what if questions can get you a great education in the industry in which you’re working.  Employers tend to appreciate the administrative assistant who understands the nuances of their field, and you can gain a great deal of knowledge to carry you up in your career.

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