Pushing Back, Appropriately and Diplomatically

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Adam Fidler explains how to say “no” (without actually saying it!)

Do you ever say “no” to your boss? Do you ever push back and tell your boss that you’re too busy? These questions might alarm you – but I am being serious. They are the questions I ask, deliberately, to the delegates on my PA training courses. The majority of the people in the room will shake their heads and say “never!”, they wouldn’t dream of saying “no” to the boss. When I question their thinking and ask why they don’t feel able to say “no”, most of them reply with something about the fact that it’s their belief that they are paid to do as they are told, and get on with it. It’s a sort of unwritten rule amongst PAs – that the boss asks you to jump and you say “how high?”

Now this strategy may have worked for the secretaries long-gone-by, but in today’s climate of overwhelming workloads, multiple bosses to work for and an expectation that everything can be done at lightening speed (due to technology!) and “like magic”, it actually does the PA no favours not to push back; when PAs don’t push back it can often result in them receiving less respect from the boss (and others), as well as an ever-increasing amount of work.

My view is that PAs should push back and say “no” to the boss – though it should always be done appropriately and diplomatically.

So, when would it be appropriate to push back or say “no”? Well, naturally, it wouldn’t be appropriate to say “no” to the boss all the time; the role of a PA is to support, assist and enhance the boss’s productivity and personal effectiveness. The new PA works in partnership with their boss, and their boss, of course, is their prime concern, where providing a service and solutions is the foundation of the role.

However, as we will explore, the occasional “no” – without actually using the word “no”, followed by a brief explanation as to why the request isn’t possible immediately, or a brief rationale as to the complexity of the request, will give others the understanding of what your role is really about. It will also command respect in terms of your time and ability to juggle your demanding workload.

When we talk about pushing back diplomatically, we mean using the right phrases – assertiveness is key here – and the right types of conversations that foster and encourage that mutual respect from both parties. The words and phrases you use can often help (or hinder!) your success in achieving the outcome you want.

So, how do you push back or even say “no” without feeling guilty or even unhelpful? Well, let’s explore some strategies – with some real-life examples to demonstrate the sort of things that PAs should be saying to their bosses.

To give you the context, when I first worked for one boss, I can quite honestly say he didn’t have any understanding of what my role entailed. (Sound familiar?) But more to the point, he didn’t understand the complexity of my role, and how in actual fact what can often sound like a simple request (“Hey Adam, can you arrange me a meeting with all 20 Board Directors, and I want it next Thursday…!”) would actually contain underneath it 20-50 “sub requests” or “sub activities” to get that “one” job done. And as you will know, those ‘sub requests’ could take hours!

In that vein, a common complaint of many a PA I have trained is: “But the boss doesn’t understand what I do!” and my response to that is always: “Well, have you taken the time to explain to the boss what your job is really about?” The PA will then look blankly at me as if to say that, in their view, the boss should understand their role and therefore support it. But, bosses are not PAs (nor would we want them to be!), and I therefore believe it’s our job (as the PA) to educate the boss about the work that we do – and the time it takes to do them. Where there is understanding and clarity on the boss’s part, there is often support – and more of a mutual respect for the work we carry out.

So, with the boss who didn’t understand what I did, my strategy was simple. I took the time (over several months, I hasten to add), every so often, when appropriate, to help my boss know what my role was about and how those small requests that sound easy-peasy can often take forever to do. That meant pushing back diplomatically, or giving the boss the reason as to why I couldn’t always get things done at that particular time.

To illustrate this, the conversation between my boss (Thomas) and me may have gone something along the lines of:

“Thomas, I know you said you wanted me to arrange an ad-hoc Board Meeting by next Thursday, but in reality I am not sure that is achievable. It will probably take me over a day’s work just to ascertain the availability of the Board members, and I am mindful that three of them are on leave this week. So, could I suggest we look at doing the Board Meeting within the next two weeks instead… to allow me sufficient time to get through to everyone?”

Or, another dialogue may have been:

“Thomas, I was able to change those travel tickets for you last minute, last night – but it did actually take me about two hours of my own time… in future, if we need to make last-minute travel changes, could we agree a better of way of working? Could we touch base say the day before you travel, and agree any changes then, rather than you emailing me late at night? When you make those changes last minute, it does put me under enormous pressure, as I have other priorities to work on…”

Or a simpler discussion:

“I’m sorry Thomas I can’t do that right now – as I am in the middle of reading through those five emails you have just sent me with Board papers to format on by noon today. If it’s not urgent, do you mind if we touch base later on – say at 3pm, when I have finished the Board papers?”

I am sure you get the thread. The point I am making is that pushing back or saying “no” is never an outright “no”, it’s more considered that that, but it enables you to show the boss, by the assertive explanations you give, why, sometimes, you cannot drop everything for them – and that your world doesn’t always revolve just around them.

I worked with this strategy with the boss I’m referring to over several months, and what was interesting for me was that the boss in question gradually gained more respect for my time and the job I was employed to do. So much so, that he would often ask me if I actually had time to do something, before doing it, or if it was tricky to do, he would ask if there was an easier or more efficient way of doing it. It also set, by default, boundaries and showed him I was fully aware of how long things take to do and, more importantly, demonstrated I was managing my own time and the expectations of him and others.

We should also remember that when we push back, or say “no” diplomatically we are actually using assertive behaviour and reinforcing boundaries with the boss and others.

The way we talk to the boss will absolutely determine the way we are perceived, and indeed the responses we get back. In that regard, I learnt a long time ago to make sure that my thoughts were in gear (in “assertive mode”) before I had the conversation with the boss, especially if it was something I needed to address with him or her that was tricky or difficult. What I am driving at here is that you must be in “assertive mode” before you have the conversation; otherwise you may not get the result you were hoping for. Assertive conversations foster assertive responses, and show the other person you are being adult-like. This in turn will drive boundaries in terms of people’s expectations of you and they are likely to be more considerate in future when placing demands on you. This can only be a good thing when workloads are sky-high.

Here then are my top tips for pushing back or saying “no” with confidence:

1      The flat out “no” is a “no-no”! Use assertive phrases, coupled with explanations to push back. For instance: “I can’t do that right now, as I am in the middle of…” or “That will prove tricky to get that done today, but I am sure that I could complete it by tomorrow.” The explanations help the boss understand that you are not being disrespectful or insubordinate, but you are taking the time to manage their requests to the best of your ability; and there are good reasons why you cannot complete the activity now or in the timescale suggested.

2      Stick to facts, never feelings or emotions. The facts could be that it will, for instance, “Take three hours to collate that report”, and you “don’t have three hours today”; or that for you to “phone every person individually will take nearly all day” etc, etc. You know precisely how long things take to do, so help the boss to understand that too.

3      After you have pushed back diplomatically, then come up with a solution or strategy to enable you (a) to get the job done; and (b) to meet the expectations of the boss. For instance, “I can’t do that right now, but could I suggest we speak after lunch? If we meet at say 1.30pm, it will then take me about an hour to prepare the report, and I can ensure that they are in today’s post.”

4      Avoid generic phrases such as: “I’m too busy!” or “No one understands how busy I am,” or even the sighs and huffs. These don’t look good on your part, and aren’t helpful. Assertive responses are always precise statements based on seeking a win-win solution.

5      Use “we” rather than “you” when speaking to the boss about them. Notice, in one example above I said ‘…Can we agree a better way of working?” and “If we need to make last-minute changes”. The use of “we” when you actually mean “you” (speaking to the boss) is less threatening and more supportive, though the message about needing to change something still as effective.

6      Always ask for a deadline – and then agree to the deadline, but make sure the deadline is realistic. For example: “That copying typing will take me about 30 minutes, then I will need to check it. So, can we agree I’ll have it ready at 2.30pm today instead?”

7      For difficult conversations, write down what you want to say and rehearse saying it before you go in and see the boss. Write down the facts of what you want to get across, then write out what you are going to say based on evidence and using assertive statements.

8      Use your own diary and schedule your key activities or work in it (eg transcribing minutes of a meeting). PAs who use their own diary tend to get through their day in a more structured way, and using your own diary is the best way to stop and think about whether you can accept that task or not before you jump in and say “No problem, leave it with me!” So, by default, when you say to someone “I’m not sure I can do that today, I will just check my own diary…” you are giving yourself time to think and respond appropriately. The dairy acts as your “buffer” and allows you to stop, think and slow down before you reply. For instance, after checking your diary, you might say to a manager, “I can’t do that right now as I have something scheduled in 10 minutes… Can I see you at 4pm instead?”

Above everything else, if you keep your conversations with your boss factual, evidence-based and assertive, then you should find pushing back or saying “no” a lot easier. Over time, pushing back diplomatically and when appropriate means you can command more respect, and people see you more managerially, and not just as the subordinate who does as they are told. And, after all, isn’t “more time” and “more respect” what we PAs strive for most in our jobs?

Try it. Say “no” just once to the boss! You will find it one of the most empowering things you ever do. Ask the boss politely to wait, or explain why you can’t do that task/activity right now (because of… X, Y and Z). The boss may not like it initially, and you may feel as though you are being unhelpful. However, I am confident you will find the boss goes away and reflects on it, and gradually has more respect for your time.

A brave PA isn’t afraid to push back – but it’s not about being brave, it’s actually respecting yourself and your time… and encouraging others to do the same. Good luck!

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About Author

Adam Fidler

Adam Fidler is an Executive Assistant Consultant who offers teaching, training and self-development of PAs, EAs and Administrators. His popular 2-day Executive PA course 'From good to outstanding' runs regularly through Pitman Training and in South Africa through CBM Training. After graduating with a degree in business studies in 1999, Adam worked as a Board-level Assistant/business support manager in a variety of public and private-sector organisations, incuding Boots PLC, Bank of America and, more latterly, Salford City College. In addition, Adam is a qualified secretarial and business studies teacher, is a shorthand expert and a well-known trainer and speaker at secretarial events, at home and abroad.

4 Comments

  1. Extremely interesting article. However, as I have been an executive assistant for many years, it always amazes me that we, as admin assistants have to live by a different set of rules. In other words, some of what you said in your article could also be utilized by managers when faced with being asked to do too many tasks or being asked to do a task in a very short period of time. Unfortunately, The Mad Men era mentality still abounds in many workplaces. But your article has given some very good advice to those who cannot say no to their managers.

  2. Cathy Harris
    Cathy Harris on

    Great read. Thank you Adam. My personal experience, and one I do share with my peer groups, on exactly the same subject is this. As my manager’s support partner, I generally never say “no”. And its not because I feel I cant say no to my manager, but rather that my manager does expect a delivery from a request. He is a high level executive of one of SA’s blue chip companies. Like me, he is results driven. If there is something that I cannot do or have the capacity to do – I delegate. If its something outside of my skill scope – I collaborate. If its something important and I might not have authority to carry out the request – I initiate the process. Everything gets followed up and followed through. At the end of the day I ensure my manager gets exactly what he wants when he wants it. In the process I have had an opportunity to empower my peers to whom I delegated to, and also let them know I trust them to be able to help me out, I have collaborated with the experts around me and have learnt new skills, and of course I never had to say “no”, cant, don’t have the time, don’t have the capacity, etc… As PA’s we have the power to say “Yes I can and I will”, too!

    The flip side of this though, is that it is necessary to say “no” to any other managers you may manage, as you have described above, who is NOT your direct manager. My executive comes first and foremost.

  3. Judy Brearley on

    A good article and I particularly liked the diary-buffer idea. It is all too easy to jump when asked to do something so anything to give a moment’s pause is useful. Thank you, Adam

  4. Elizabeth Nadler on

    I couldn’t agree with Adam more. I worked as a Research Assistant, an AA and an EA. I’ve had bosses who were marvelous and some who were walking nightmares. No matter who they were, they were human beings, not gods, and although I worked for them, my time and skills were just as worthy of respect as theirs. I would handle many things differently now.

    My last boss was a dream come true – no micro-management, ever. He gave me room to be creative, proactive, and to grow and continue taking on additional and higher-level responsibilities. He was a rare creature.

    I think that saying no in the manner described by Adam is completely valid and desirable. There are very often no people to whom one can delegate or with whom one can collaborate. Often EAs have complete responsibility for what they do and no one shares that. I think that saying no assertively, yet diplomatically promotes much greater communication between an executive and her assistant. I think that setting some reasonable boundaries at work is critical, and I really like what Adam has to say.

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