At work, it’s okay to say ‘no’ to your boss

Jonathan Yabut

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At work, it’s okay to say ‘no’ to your boss
That extra-long meeting, that new project nobody wants, a few more hours at the office – sometimes, you just need to refuse

When we think of successful people like Steve Jobs or Oprah, we imagine a hyperactive person who sleeps 4 hours a day to accomplish a hundred things per week. I lived like this for years. 

I was that guy who couldn’t say no to every task. I said “Yes, I will attend” to every meeting at work. I said yes when a colleague invited me to try out Office Zumba (that didn’t work out for me by the way). I also said yes to every friend who asked me to review his 4-page resume (seriously folks, limit it to two pages please). Saying no felt like I was passing up to an opportunity knocking on my door, and so I always nodded my head. I was your “Yes!” man.

The downside was that I was also exhausted and unhappy. Crossing out 10 tasks a day didn’t mean I achieved something that I really wanted, or needed. As I climbed up the corporate ladder, I realized that feeling productive is different from being productive. This was the time in my life when I realized that I had to start saying “I’m sorry, but no.”  

I learned how to say no to my work colleagues, to some friends, and yes, to some opportunities. I learned how to say no to whomever or whatever was my “boss.”

Business icons like Richard Branson or Bill Gates attest to one powerful philosophy behind their success: say no to other opportunities, focus on one big thing, and be good at it. For every mountain they climbed, there stood a dozen opportunities they also declined. 

When Steve Jobs commented on what was his one proud achievement in Apple, he said, “I am as proud of what we don’t do, as I am with what we do. Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” 

But how do you say no to meetings you don’t think are important? How do you turn down a friend who’s inviting you to run some laps at four in the morning? Here are some insights on the power of saying no, and some tips on how to graciously decline. 

 “You are not a washing machine that can clean with the same power even if you add just a few more shirts or towels. It is all right to say no.”   

1. Do what doctors do: Triage 

I spend a decent time of my childhood in hospitals because my mom is a nurse. Every New Year’s eve, my mom got assigned in the emergency room and left me at the waiting area until her shift ended. Past dinner time, I saw dozens of blood-stained people rushing for medical help. Some had lost fingers, others a limb. What struck me was that not every patient received care immediately.

“Triage,” my mom answered. “We practice triage when few doctors and medical equipment cannot manage too many patients.” You may have seen triage practiced in those tragic movies about wars, accidents, and calamities.

In some types of triage, those severely wounded, but can survive if treated, are given first priority while those who have no chance of surviving at all will unfortunately not be the first to be treated. 

I apply triage in life, because life is a battlefield. Every day, we are bombarded with hundreds of stimuli that fight for our attention: a favor asked by a friend, a funny video on Facebook, a new deadline set by your boss, or that new cute officemate of yours.

They individually take a few minutes of our day, but can total to hours of consumed time.  While my initial reaction is to respond to everything, I only choose the ones that will significantly change my life:  what will get me to a promotion faster, what will make me sleep better at night, and what will make more people happier.

Similarly, leaders don’t do all the tasks; they delegate these to their team. The rest will be thrown in the trash bin with no regret. Just like triage, letting go is painful but necessary so you can move on.  

2. Remember that every “no” earns you a “yes” for something else

In 1993, an employee of Delta Airlines thought that passengers didn’t really mind (nor did they eat) the lettuce on their entree that served as base for salad. She suggested taking it out which of course irritated the guys in the kitchen (“But we’ve been doing it like this for years!”). The management followed his suggestion.

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To their surprise, not only did some passengers think that the entree looked cleaner; some didn’t even notice the removal at all. Voila! Weeding out the lettuce saved them a whopping $1.4M in one year.  

In life, I always ask myself what are the pieces of lettuce that I continue to keep—but have to let go—so that I can gain something else. Before I decline a colleague’s meeting, I first ask for her agenda and use it to justify why my marketing role may be more crucial for something else.

Here’s a sample response: “If you tell me that this meeting will tackle operational problems, I may not be value-adding to it. I hope you appreciate that I can spend my two hours visiting a client instead so I can help the company reach its sales target.”

3. The Jack-Of-All-Trades is dead in the 21st Century 

Whenever my boss assigns me with an extra workload, I manage his expectations about my performance because lesser focus means weaker performance.

Here’s a sample response: “Boss, it is possible to accomplish all these 10 tasks, but I am concerned that this will slow down my pace, or affect my output on this other project.” 

You are not a washing machine that can clean with the same power even if you add just a few more shirts or towels. It is all right to say no

I remember the award-winning Japanese documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi which demonstrates how the master always defeats the jack-of-all-trades. Jiro is an 85-year-old (now 89) sushi maker who owns the most expensive sushi restaurant in the world.


When asked by his customers to also serve okonomiyaki or tempura, he politely declines. His strength is making sushi, and trying to be good at another dish will only weaken the expertise of his cooks and waiters. It will also only increase his costs of operation.

Similarly, brand managers fall into the trap of branding their product with so many claims (e.g. “the most affordable”, “the best-performing,” “the first in the market”) all at the same time. The reason why Safeguard stands out is that even if it is affordable, smells good, and comes in good packaging – it refuses to communicate all these things except one: it has superior skin-germ protection. This easily sticks in our minds and it is no wonder that it lathers (pun intended) in almost every Filipino household.

Don’t try to be everything in people’s minds. Similarly, don’t try to please everyone at work or in school. Ignore the rest, and focus your energy so you can move the scale.

Here’s your next challenge:

Saying no is a conscious, rational strategy in life. There is no right or wrong prioritization, but your decision will determine your success. You have the right to say no, when you think you can’t or should not do it. Say no to that meeting if you don’t think it will make money for business. Say no to that Friday night out if you have an early Saturday flight. But don’t just say no, be gracious to give your reason. Most of the time, people will understand as it is.

Now, I challenge you with one thing: look at your to-do-list today and focus only on one or two things that really matters. As for the rest, try singing with me: “Let it go, let it go.” –

Jonathan Yabut is the winner of the hit reality business TV show, The Apprentice Asia, and was popularly known in the show for his people skills, leadership and passionate speeches in the “boardroom.” He is currently based in Kuala Lumpur as the Chief of Staff of AirAsia reporting to Malaysian business mogul, Tony Fernandes. Apart from work, he engages in motivational talks about youth, leadership and entrepreneurship across Southeast Asia and is represented by the London Speaker Bureau. He recently launched his book about his journey to becoming the first Asian Apprentice, From Grit to Great. Visit his website at


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