How to say ‘No’ to your boss without being fired: Interview with Greg McKeown

3 min read · 8 years ago


"If we’re not engaged in the disciplined pursuit of the essential, we’re engaged in the undisciplined pursuit of the nonessential,” says Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism,” a New York Times bestselling book that just might change your work life. In a culture of wanting to please everyone, McKeown explains, we say ‘Yes’ to everything, almost without thinking. This attitude of wanting to make everyone happy can apply to anything, from parenting small children through to the office and the boardroom. But there are negative consequences to taking on every demand, and those consequences are felt in our overall productivity. The more we try to do, the less focused we become on the really important things. Say ‘No’ more often. McKeown says that if all you do is say “Yes” to every request, you’re giving up a lot of your power. "If all you want is to be an order taker, then just say ‘Yes,’” he says.  Life, he says, is often more negotiable. McKeown points to a study conducted in Australia about people’s  regrets as they were dying. The number one regret of dying people was that they wished they had lived a life being true to themselves rather than what people expected of them. That was ahead even of regretting working so hard or spending too little time with family. Most people are uncomfortable simply saying ‘no’ to a supervisor, but McKeown points out that there are ways to turn them down while remaining positive. For example, when you are requested to take on a new project, ask your boss which of your other tasks can be de-prioritized so that you will have time to focus your efforts. “Essentialism” illustrates its points with anecdotes, including one about an executive McKeown worked with who founded a startup that was acquired by a much larger company in Silicon Valley. He stayed on to work in a division at the bigger company and started out wanting to make a good impression. He wanted to be a team player and please everyone in his new job, so he said ‘yes’ to everything. But he discovered he wasn’t happy; he felt stressed all the time and was doing less and less good work. When the company offered him an early retirement package, he had an epiphany. Rather than just take it and essentially give up, he decided to cut out the red tape, say “no” to nonessential requests, and focus on the things that truly mattered. He stopped going to most meetings, even though people complained. He made sure his team stopped calling him outside work hours. He went home for dinner and started going to the gym for the first time in years. The surprising result was that he received the best performance evaluations he had ever had at the new company.

This story is key to the idea of essentialism. "Why is it that we end up being busy but not productive?” McKeown asks. “We have been conned,” he answers. “From prehistory to the last 100 years the word ‘priority' has only been singular – meaning one most important thing. Only in the last 100 years have we started to use the term ‘priorities’ – but how can there be more than one most important thing?” What can anyone do right now to start taking back their life at work? “There’s one simple thing to do,” McKeown says. “At every meeting you have, ask what is its one key purpose – the one thing you want to have happen as a result. If there isn’t one, then don’t have the meeting. And if there is, then fight for that one thing in the meeting. And when you have got it, end the meeting.”