How to (Politely) Say “No” to Being a Manager

How to (Politely) Say “No” to Being a Manager

Not everyone wants to be a manager — and that’s okay. If your boss offers you a position that you don’t want, here are some ways to turn it down without compromising your ability to progress. The best way to alleviate confusion is to share with your manager, in...more
30 May 2022

I have some good news for star employees who don’t want to be in charge of their coworkers: While many believe that the above statement is true, it’s a myth. When it comes to career growth, research shows it is possible to progress both laterally and vertically.

Author Cathy Benko has compared this type of progression to a lattice structure. In mathematics, a lattice extends infinitely in any direction. While some employees prefer a more linear path and want to climb up the lattice into roles that include people management, others are happier zigzagging or shuffling sideways to grow in their roles as individual contributors.

Both avenues can lead to success. It just depends on what you want from your career.

Even so, for those of us who prefer to “zigzag,” turning down a management role is rarely easy. And if you’re good at your job, it’s likely you’ll eventually be asked to step into leadership. When this happens, you may feel pressured to say yes for fear of stunting your growth at the company. The risk of seeming disinterested in what others deem a “great opportunity” can be confusing and make you question which course you should take.

Don’t let this stop you from choosing what feels right for you. In this moment, focusing on your own contributions — as opposed to leading others — may be what gives you positive energy and helps you leverage your strengths. That’s okay.

Remember: you can always change your mind in the future.

If your boss offers you a managerial position that you don’t want, here are some ways to turn it down without compromising your ability to progress.

Clear, Upfront Communication

If you choose not to take the leadership path presented to you, it’s your responsibility to define what your success and growth at the company look like. Perhaps you already have a vision for your preferred career trajectory that doesn’t include management. Don’t wait to be put on the spot — alleviate confusion and awkwardness by telling your manager what you want during a one-on-one meeting or feedback session. Be upfront and factual.

Before your discussion, create a career advancement plan. This can be a simple matrix with columns labeled:

  • Skills you want to continue building
  • Your greatest strengths
  • Areas your manager has noted you could develop (in a review or previous meeting)
  • One blank column to brainstorm growth opportunities during your upcoming one-on-one

Once you have a better idea of where you are and where you want to go, it’s time to initiate that discussion.

You can say something like: “I was hoping we could use some of this time to discuss my career path here at [company]. I want to make sure I’m being transparent about how I think I can best contribute as I grow. I’m primarily interested in improving my technical expertise within the department and think that’s where my skills can be best utilized. I don’t have as much of an interest in managing people. Focusing on my expertise and craft — that excites me.”

This of course is the best case scenario. In some cases, a promotion may be sprung on you, or you may not have had the chance to communicate your disinterest in management before an offer is made.

If you are forced to surprise your manager with the news that you intend to decline a leadership position after it is offered to you, there are a few other ways to make that conversation a productive one.

Be Gracious

First and foremost, be sure to thank them for the opportunity. Even though you may be surprised to learn that you are being considered for a management role, don’t let your guard up. The thought of becoming a manager may make you nervous. Take a deep breath to calm your nerves and express that you are grateful and flattered before communicating that this isn’t an opportunity you would like. In order to keep your cool, Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review, recommends that you keep your voice steady and avoid fidgeting during difficult conversations.

Create a Business Case

After thanking them, and before declining the offer, tell your manager you want some time to consider it. Take a day or two to prepare a case for why staying in your current role and department will ultimately be good for the business. The goal is to show your manager how you can contribute to the company’s long-term success and strategic goals.

You may say something like, “While I really appreciate the opportunity, I think I can contribute more to our annual goal of yielding a 20% increase in social media engagement in my current role as a contributing editor. If I move into management, the dashboard I am working on might not get finished. On top of that, I’d love to keep honing my skills around data analysis and copywriting.”

You should also consider how you can expand your current role to benefit the company. You might add, “Copywriting is what I’m most passionate about and where I see myself advancing down the line. As we expand, I want to take on more responsibilities as an individual contributor in this area.”

Practice a shortened version of what you will say with a trusted colleague. You may not be given as much time as you’d like to explain yourself in the actual meeting, so keep your practice session brief.

Be Helpful

In The Right Way to Present Your Business Case, Carolyn O’Hara writes that it’s critical to think about your presentation if you want to make an impact and get what you want. Addressing your manager’s concerns before they are presented will help you get do that. For example, think about why they are asking you to take on this role in the first place. Can you make other suggestions to help fill that need?

Perhaps you can recommend other candidates who might be suitable or offer to help groom someone in a junior role. Alternatively, if the role must be filled immediately, you can offer to be the bridge role and help your manager until a suitable candidate is found.

Sometimes, leaders don’t know where to start when offloading responsibilities, especially if your company is experiencing high growth. Think of what the company’s needs are and suggest areas where you can help right away. Act like a coach by asking questions such as: “How can I help you right now?” or “What are projects I can work on until the manager role is determined?

While it can be flattering to be recommended for a people leadership role, you don’t have to take the role if it isn’t what you want for your career. Remember: there are many ways to find success. Ensure that you are prepared to share what you want in a positive and productive way.

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