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7 Things You Should Never Say to Your Boss

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I was just reading 7 Things You Should Never Say to Your Employees, and it occurred to me that most employees have no idea how to speak to their boss. They tend to fall into one of two general camps. Some are afraid to assert themselves and push back, which makes them spineless doormats, more or less. Others shoot themselves in the foot by being overly defiant or contentious.

In the interest of finding a middle ground that actually works, here are seven things you should never say to the one person you’re not related to that controls a big part of your life. If you read carefully, they also include lessons on how to manage up, get ahead and not self destruct.

"How do I do that?" When your boss asks you to do something, once you understand what he’s talking about, your job is to say, “Sure, no problem; you can count on me.” Then go off and figure out how to do it and, of course, get it done. That’s how you take on more responsibility without being more trouble than your worth. It’s a good thing. 

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"I don’t have the time." Let me let you in on a little secret. Nobody ever has the time. We’re all continuously being asked to do more with less, including your boss and her boss, as well. It comes with the territory. Just figure out how important it is and prioritize. If it means something else has to fall off your plate, so be it. Tell her that.

"No." Unless it’s illegal or unethical, I cannot think of a single situation where it’s a good idea to say no to your boss. You can ask questions, push back, or negotiate, but don’t say no unless you’ve got a great resume and don’t need the job. You’re just asking for trouble. And don’t get creative. “I’d rather not” will have the same result.  

"Take this job and shove it." Maybe your boss is the biggest slime bag on the planet. Maybe he’s ruthless and abusive and acts out his childhood aggressions on employees he thinks of as his own personal slave. I don’t care. When you’re ready to call it quits, do it professionally. Don’t burn bridges; it will come back to haunt you.   

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"I’m going to HR." When I was a young engineer, I asked my boss why he gave me a bad review. He told me. Not satisfied, I asked if he’d mind if I spoke to his boss. He said, no, so I did. No problem. It’s OK to go over your boss’s head, if you do it right (openly and respectfully) and for the right reason. But if that fails, going to human resources will not help you. If it’s serious, quit. If it’s illegal, sue. Otherwise, quit whining. And forget about HR. 

"It wasn’t me; she did it." If you’re responsible, own it. If it’s not your responsibility or your fault, explain it, for all that’s worth. But do not point fingers at someone else. Ever. Yes, I know that some executives and political leaders do that sort of thing. Believe me, I know. They’re incompetent, they’re unprofessional, and I wouldn’t hire them in a million years. Don’t be like them.  

"That guy’s an idiot." Whether it’s a coworker, a customer, a vendor, or pretty much anyone, don’t think for a minute you can vent to or conspire with your boss like he’s your buddy. He’s not your buddy. And you run the risk of sounding petty, disrespectful, or critical of someone who may be more important to the company than you are. Also, he’ll wonder what you say about him behind his back and never trust you.

Look, bosses are real people, just like you and me. And they’re human, just like you and me. But they’re in a unique position, and that warrants thoughtful interaction. In general, if you keep it professional, keep it about business, and have some level of respect, that’s what you’ll get in return. And if you take on responsibility, hold yourself accountable, and get the job done, you’ll go places.  

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Steve Tobak

Written By

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.