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My boss is repeatedly giving me some R&D tasks which are a little bit frustrating for me to do. Several times I've told him that I am better in other assignments, but he always convinces me that I am the only person in team who can do the R&D work better.

Is it ok for me to refuse tasks I am not interested in doing? How can I say "no" politely?

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migrated from programmers.stackexchange.com Nov 23 '12 at 11:27

This question came from our site for professional programmers interested in conceptual questions about software development.

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"I would prefer not to" - Bartleby the Scrivener. gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11231/pg11231.html –  Avner Shahar-Kashtan Nov 23 '12 at 7:07
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The weird part here is that you seem to be unable to say 'no'. I admire your boss. –  Mikhail Nov 23 '12 at 7:17
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Its called a job because they "pay" you to do things you would not want to do for fun and "free". –  Loki Astari Nov 23 '12 at 15:37

5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

In most professional positions, your job description describes, using high level language, what the position most likely entails. However, most of these job descriptions also have one other element to them, which generally states that the position can also include "other duties as assigned".

In short, it's really your duty to do the work that's assigned to you, and most employers want to hire people who they know won't just be fair-weather employees who will be there for the fun stuff but who will hide when it comes time to do heavy lifting.

While R&D may not be what you're interested in, consider that it's an essential part of the success of an organization. While frustrating, you're likely participating in breaking new ground in terms of what your company does. It takes a good, trusted employee to be able to do this, so if your boss has selected you to do this, then look at this as an opportunity for growth.

In conclusion, I'm not sure if you're not excited about the work because you think you'd do a bad job or because you find it boring, but if it's because you don't think you'd do a good job, consider that R&D is hard, and if your boss thinks you can do a good job at this, then believe in yourself and tell yourself that you can too. ;)

If you're not excited about the work, you can still explain to your boss that, if there's someone else equally qualified and interested, then he should give the work to that person. However, I wouldn't suggest saying no. While you can certainly explain to your boss that you're not interested in the work, you would probably do much better for your career if you also added that you'll do the best you can because you want to do a good job and help the company succeed. If you really really loathe the work, then it may be time to move on. Good luck!

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yaa i remember "other duties as assigned" part :) –  Buzz Nov 23 '12 at 8:27
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I would also add that if you are the most qualified person for the job, then, it may be time for your boss or you to train another persons on those tasks. Unless someone else is qualified to do the task, it is unlikely that you would be able to escape it. –  David Segonds Nov 25 '12 at 11:02

Don't say no - this is certainly what you shouldn't do.

There are at least 2 possible reasons of your boss giving you these tasks:

  1. he doesn't know what work to give you so he finds these "research" tasks to make you busy for some time
  2. these research tasks are actually important but you, as poorly motivated person, don't really get involved in it

To figure it out, try to prepare a good summary of your research and discuss it with your boss. Discuss higher-level strategy:

  • what is the goal of your team/company and how your research fits in it?
  • what are the next steps (after you complete your research)?

After the discussion, you'll see whether:

  1. the tasks are not as serious as you boss wants you to think. This will be clear for both of you. In this case, read below. OR
  2. the tasks are really important. Your boss will see you're interested in doing it well and will probably give you more information so you'll be able to succeed in it and it finally will bring the desired result.

The second advice to you is to constantly maintain a TODO-list (or "known issues/ideas") of things that you can do/improve/fix so that you always have what to do. Put in the list issues that you can and want to do, let your boss see that list (e.g. use Google Docs Spreadsheet so he can even see how it's changing over time). In this case, your boss won't give you non-important tasks because he'll see there are real relevant tasks. And again, your boss will see that you are interested in organizing you work process and doing you work right.

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Can your employer politely refuse to pay your salary? I think you'll agree that as long as you do your job, your employer is required to pay you.

Of course, there can always be a discussion. But you'll have to sell your boss on it. If you think that you would benefit the company more by applying yourself to tasks other than the ones assigned, then you need to make that case. And not in a non-quantifiable "I feel that this would better" argument, but in hard facts and numbers. And then be prepared for a counter-argument because you may not have all the facts to begin with and your boss may have to make considerations that you are not aware of.

And also be prepared to accept that at the end of the day, you get paid to do a job and that involves completing tasks given to you. In fact, your boss has already given you the basis of his consideration: you are the best man for the job (I am the only person in team who can do the R&D work better).

That is also a good opening for you to address this in a longer term. He says you're the only person who can do this. I say that makes you a dangerous single point of failure for your team. Maybe you can suggest that effort should be put towards training someone else up to the point where he or she is also able to do these R&D tasks? And then you will have a better chance of getting approval for applying yourself to other tasks that are more beneficiary for the team and the company.

Remember, a smart company wants to keep their employees happy and satisfied with their work since it usually produces better output, but making you happy is not a goal in itself, the goal is always to improve business and make money. And sometimes that involves having people do things they don't find super-appealing.

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If the type of work is within your job description, you are not operating in an "agile" or "scrum" environment, and you are not overloaded, then unfortunately your manager is well within their rights to ask you to do any task they choose.

Its worth remembering, however, that one good definition of professionalism is the ability to cross the gap between what we want to do, and what we know we should do.

All roles have frustrating components, and I tend to judge the professionalism of my staff in part in how they apply themselves to the tasks that I know they don't enjoy doing, or struggle with, more than I do with how they engage with the things they love.

In the short term, I would urge you to apply youself to these tasks as diligently as possible. By refusing, however politely :

  • you will be seen to be putting your personal goals ahead of the department/team goals
  • you may be seen as pushing back against your bosses decisions
  • you may come across to your boss as arrogant, or a "prima donna"
  • you will certainly come across to your colleagues as a "prima donna"

Where possible you should put yourself forward for the type of work you do like, especially areas where you want to gain experience or grow your skills.

In the medium term - say 3-6 months - you can raise the issue of the types of roles you are being assigned with your boss - simply request a one-on-one meeting with them to discuss your career progress and explain why you are not happy.

In this discussion you will be supported by you already demonstrated skill, professionalism and team focus, and your manager is much more likely to be receptive.

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Under agile/scrum, the line manager does not dictate which tasks and individual should do; user-story priorities for the team are set by the product owner, and these are modified by the team if there are engineering concerns - so the issue with workloads would not arise in the same way. The OP mentioned the "programmers" stack exchange board, and agile/scrum is most widely used in programming. I haven't assigned a task directly to any of my development team for years! –  GuyM Nov 23 '12 at 17:36
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@jmort253 - thanks! Line managing an agile team is interesting to say the least; a significant part of my role is about supporting the team so they can maintain cohesion while avoiding personality or communication-style based conflicts, especially as the team grows and/or takes on less experienced members. –  GuyM Nov 23 '12 at 20:38

Others have said you are probably better to avoid "No" as an answer. Generally, that's true. However, the way to accomplish this is to make it better for your boss to move at least some of the undesirable stuff to someone else. The desire here is to create a "win-win" for both you and your boss without looking like you're doing this for selfish reasons.

Specifically, one way to get around this without causing career harm may be to train someone else to do it. You could approach your boss with something like:

  • "I realize these R&D tasks are important to the organization, but I believe it would be more valuable for me to spend my time doing (whatever it is you would rather be doing)."
  • If it applies, you could add "With me doing all the R&D and there being no one else familiar enough to step into the task quickly, the organization would face a set back if I got hit by a bus."
  • Then "Thus, I propose that I train someone else to take over the R&D work. After taking them through the process a couple times, they can take over or we can share the job. Of course, I'll be available to help if needed." On this point, if you know someone who wants to do the R&D work, you could suggest them as the potential trainee(s).
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+1 for the "training your sucessor comment. This is often key to moving forward in your career –  GuyM Nov 26 '12 at 21:58

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