Smarter Working

Should the Boss Hear No?

An international soccer incident raises questions about when to confront the boss. Here's how to decipher when getting tough can work—or backfire. 

It was a bizarre end to a high-stakes soccer game: Chelsea’s goalie Kepa Arrizabalaga, seconds before a shootout began, disobeyed his coach in front of thousands of viewers by refusing to come out of the game after an injury. The result: Chelsea lost the Carabao Cup Final to Manchester City.   

While the move by Chelsea’s goalie was as outlandish as it gets in sports—leaving the soccer club and its fans trophy-less and fuming—Andrew Montag, senior associate of Korn Ferry’s Global Sports practice, says telling the boss “no” happens much more frequently off the field. Indeed, in today’s workplace, where dynamics between managers and employees are becoming less hierarchical, it isn’t uncommon to see episodes of what would traditionally be viewed as mutiny.

Employees must gauge what type of boss they have and how much autonomy they may get.

But such boldness can sometimes lead organizations to breakthroughs. Organizational psychologists refer to this idea as “psychological safety.” Simply put, it’s the notion that you won’t be punished if you make a mistake. Researchers have found that companies that embrace psychological safety encourage risk-taking, creativity, and pushing boundaries—which ultimately results in their getting ahead. 

But it’s critical to judge the times when it’s smart to pull an Arrizabalaga, and understand the risks in full if you fail. Here’s how to decide when to only suggest pushing back, and when to storm the gates at full speed. 

Level 1: Float the idea.

To be bold requires planning and confidence. That’s why it’s good to test the waters first and get a sense of how your request (or defiance) may be received. The bigger and bolder the notion, the better it is to not go all-in at first. Employees first must gauge what type of boss they have and how much autonomy they may get, Montag says. If you have a boss who always has to have the final say, saying no at the get-go isn’t probably going to get you anywhere—and could ultimately hurt you. 

Once you’ve figured out how much leeway there may be, begin by floating your idea casually. You can couch it as a learning opportunity for you, both in terms of your own personal career development and (perhaps more importantly) as a way to push the organization forward. The key isn’t to come down hard on what you want, career pros say. Rather, it’s to start the conversation and plant the idea in your manager’s head.

Level 2: Mildly push forward.

Once you’ve understood what space you have to maneuver, you can choose to mildly push for something. To do so, it’s critical to understand how much you really want (or don’t want) something. Once you’ve determined your level of desire and how much risk you’re willing to take, you need to have evidence to back up the push. “If you say no to the boss, come with facts to support your claim,” Montag says. “It will be a lot easier for a boss to support your stance.” Another key factor in your push is your confidence level. How sure are you that you can get the task done? And how will it affect the organization if you fail? The more you can be aware of your own limitations, and play out both successful and unsuccessful scenarios, the better off you’ll be.

Level 3: Go all in.

There are times when we only get one shot at something—or maybe only one shot every few years. If you find yourself in such a scenario, in which you’ve evaluated all your options and feel a full storming of the gate is necessary, it’s important to be fully prepared for blowback and understand your position in it all. In Arrizabalaga’s case, the repercussions for him, personally, may not be as severe because he’s one of the highest paid players in global soccer. But he’s always going to have to live with wondering whether his team would’ve won if he had obeyed the coach and come out of the game.

In other cases, it can help to get others on your side, be it mentors, sponsors, or colleagues. Recently, when a boss suggested his team move office locations—which would make commutes for the entire team double in time—the colleagues got together and decided to tell the boss no. It was a stunning display of disobedience, but it didn’t backfire. The boss, who wasn’t heavy handed and was known for giving employees a fair amount of autonomy, backed down and decided not to pursue the location change. If anything, the move may have made the team more productive.

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