Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

don't wanna ?


In your opinion, is it OK to just say "don't wanna" when you are given a task by your boss / proj. leader ?

To put things into perspective - I am a developer / maintainer. Recently, I've been given a task that suits a sysadmin, and I neither am good at it or have any sympathy for it. I literally suffer when I work on this task - and my productivity is in accordance. So, is it OK / acceptable to just say "I don't want to do it" ?

P.S.: I realize that "Yes" will be a frequent answer. I'd like some details, and especially motivation though,

Thanks in advance

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Is this really a serious question?

In case it is, it's perfectly ok to say "I don't wanna".

Is it ok for your project leader not to give you a raise next review period?

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Do read Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" first.

Joel Spolsky
Thursday, June 12, 2003


1. "So-and-so knows that better than I do.  Maybe he would be a better fit?"

2. "So-and-so is eager for something technical to do.  Maybe they would like a challenge?"

3. "My current project(s) are cruicial to the company.  This side task will delay their completion."

4. Postpone and procrastinate until it goes away or gets reassigned.  This works in more cases than people think.

5.  Fake incompetence.

6.  Request clarification that this is a temporary job duty.  (not that this really means anything).

7.  Do the task, but bitch about it.

8.  Cop a 1999 and say "don't wanna; oh and by the way, my department wants a raise and an indoor badmitton court installed on premisis".

9.  Yes sir.  Right away sir.  Did you say jump?  I'm already in the air, sir.

If you've been at your job a couple years and people like you, #1-8 could work, otherwise it's #9.

Bill Carlson
Thursday, June 12, 2003

> I realize that "Yes" will be a frequent answer. I'd like some details, and especially motivation though, <

You seriously think that will be a frequent answer? From Philo maybe, but not anyone else (just kidding).

I questioned one assignment I got where I thought my boss was asking me to fly out to Japan (it turns out he wasn't) and I don't think he ever forgave me for it.
Thursday, June 12, 2003

LOL! Bite me, Mark.

My answer would be "it depends"

Are you the best person for the job? How much off your track is it? How distracting will it be? How long will it take? Is it a single task or an ongoing assignment? Was the tasking an offer or a directive? etc.

For those who are bordering on advocating unquestioning obedience, would you really salute smartly and say "aye, aye, sir" if the directive was "I want to test our backup system - format the production server and restore it from scratch right now"? How about "I think we should drop Java and redesign our application from the ground up in Visual Basic"?

When you get senior enough, then some orders should be questioned. If your boss tasks you with something when someone else is better qualified, or you're already working 60 hours/week, or you honestly don't have the skills, then IMHO you are *obligated* to raise the issue.

If it's a preferential issue, then it's possible to gently disagree - we use an online shopping package that I *loathe*, and I tell my boss every time I have to do something with it. But I also do what I'm asked to do.

All the preceding of course has a massive caveat that if you've got the wrong boss, then saying anything but "how high" could get you fired. [shrug]


Thursday, June 12, 2003

Stephen Covey mentions one of his former employees in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  He asked this person to perform some task.  After a few moments of thought the employee turned back and replied (and I paraphrase because the book is at home), "I'd like to do that, but I'm already operating under a full load of work, here are my project (points to a whiteboard with information on it) and their deadlines and progress.  Which one would you like me to postpone or which one would you rather I handed off to someone else to accomodate this?"

He quickly found someone else to do the job, realizing how effective this person was being.  Note, language is very important.  If you reply that "I don't wanna" you'll have problems.  If you make a simple case not directly related to the project - that is, if you show your other pressing work and how disruptive this will be - you might have a chance.  Best of luck.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Do read Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" first.

I would prefer not to.

Swahili Dilio
Thursday, June 12, 2003

"Don't wanna" is not a professional answer.

How about: "This is not something I'm skilled at and is not the type of task I have an aptitude for.  Can this be reassigned to someone with more experience and aptitude?"

If you have a good boss, he will recognize that what you're saying is that it's inefficient for you to take on this task, and that he'll get better, faster results by giving it to someone else.  The catch is that "someone else" may not exist or may be unavailable, in which case you may well have to suck it up and do it.


Thursday, June 12, 2003

Lou is right on the money! I have actually used this approach and did not even know it came from "7 habits".

moses whitecotton
Thursday, June 12, 2003

I was never good at that Steven Covey / CYA speak. I'm pretty bad, actually, at saying something I don't actually mean.

I blame it on being to sober most of my life... I think most people learn to lie when they're being picked up in a bar by someone they desperately don't want to be picked up by.
Thursday, June 12, 2003

Stephen Covey's approach is neither CYA nor lying.  It's telling the truth.

Which would be my approach.  Explain that you dislike this work to your boss, that you're not skilled for it, etc.

My Dad did this once with a boss he hated, and the boss not only respected him and found him other work to do, he always complimented my Dad for being upfront about it.

Brent P. Newhall
Thursday, June 12, 2003

[Do read Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" first. ]

I would love to. Unfortunately I have a full load of books to read including: Hemmingway on Fishing, Patterns of Enterprise Architecture, Jack London - Collection of Short Stories, Robot City #3, and Body of Secrets (Inside the NSA).

Which one of these would you like me to postpone?  ;-)

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Robot City # 3 - I read those books as I was growing up. I discovered it via a radio show produced here in NY and played late at night on WBAI.

The video game is also very good, I tracked it down becuase the books were so good. I think I got it for $5 from

You're right, Covey isn't CYA or lying, but it is good salesmanship and presenting things in a certain light, which I'm not very practiced at.

If I'm explaining something to someone I can "get inside their head" and figure out what they need to know, but often when I'm selling myself, especially to an authority figure, I get a little nervous and have a hard time "telling them what they want to hear" even if it is just a matter of putting the truth in a better light. It's definately something I need to work on.

(do I pass my performance evaluation?)
Thursday, June 12, 2003

Read short form

Thursday, June 12, 2003

"You're right, Covey isn't CYA or lying, but it is good salesmanship and presenting things in a certain light, which I'm not very practiced at."

Then put everything else aside and work on this.  I'm guessing you've got good technical skills.  Salesmanship is a necessity in a capitalist economy.  I think the critical skill is empathy.  In a sales/consultant/employee situation, you need to be able to express your opinion in terms of the customer/ client/boss' needs, priorities and values.

I don't think I'm great at it either, but I think I'm a lot better than I used to be.

What do y'all think are good resources for this?

Good luck.

Jim Rankin
Thursday, June 12, 2003

The specific circumstances mean everything.

The mention of living in a capitalist society raises an interesting point. Even people at FT jobs should probably adopt the attitude that they have to re-sell their bosses on them as employees at regular intervals. This wasn't the case 10 or 20 years ago but it's the way we have to live today.

Even degreed professionals have to adopt the mentality of sales people continually re-selling themselves. It eats sh*t as a workplace trend and makes me wonder if productivity hasn't taken a nosedive based upon pressuring everyone to market themselves, but it's what businesses now demand.

Fail to "sell yourself" enough times and you're history, whether outsourced, position eliminated, or offshored. No matter what you do or how well you do it. And saying "don't wanna" as an only explanation is a prime recipe for raising your visibility enough to make this highly probable.

Bored Bystander
Thursday, June 12, 2003

Bored, your attitude puts you squarely in Catch-22 territory.

a) Tell your boss when you're overburdened so he can prioritize your tasking, but risk getting fired for saying anything but "yes, sir - how high?"


b) Always accept every task assigned and start doing substandard work and missing deadlines because you're overtasked. (And this includes being assigned something that the appropriate worker could do in an hour but takes you ten because you don't have the requisite knowledge)


Thursday, June 12, 2003


No, I didn't say that at all and I didn't mean that.

The scope of my statement was that when you *explicitly*  refuse to do something asked of you, you are potentially placing your position in jeopardy. By 'explicitly' I mean saying "no, I won't".

YES, I agree with every word you state. But you know what?  Companies that pile it on very often don't care how crappy the result is. They are looking for line worker accountability. They need a column of Yes's. One No mars things, makes things messy, makes the managers look like the a-holes they are.

I was fired from a job 12 years ago for doing just that; for saying "no, I can't do that because I am almost doing X and Y." The management didn't give a damn, they only wanted to see people dance when they shot at their feet.

I could have survived if I had not made an issue of this, even if I had done really crappy work as a result.

The job, BTW, was horrible, the coworkers and the management were all pricks, and I hated the place anyway.  It was good to leave.

But  I speak from experience, and I do realize that it's a catch-22.

Perhaps the real issue is: do you want to work steadily for just one company, or do you want to do quality work? In many cases these are mutually exclusive choices...

Bored Bystander
Thursday, June 12, 2003


>> "no, I can't do that because I am almost doing X and Y."

I meant:

"no, I can't do that because I am >also< doing X and Y."

Philo - also, sorry for jumping all over you on that post. I have a sore spot when it comes to employee-management relations. I am a casualty of telling my management "the truth" which happened to be reinterpreted as "what Bored wants personally which does not suit us, so good-bye".

Bored Bystander
Thursday, June 12, 2003

As a negotiating thing, watch out for the trap of giving "reasons" that your manager can then explain away.

If you really don't want to do it, you need to explicitly tell him or her it's a really dumb job for you and you DON'T WANT TO DO IT. That can't be argued away.

Sometimes non-technical managers don't understand the differences between roles.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

If you say no tactfully and professionally and have a good reason for it, then you place yourself in the position of being on the upswing and maybe being able to negotiate.  If your boss still says do it then you politely inform him/her of the consequences and move on.

If you just abrubtly say no that takes away your neutrality and puts you on the defensive against a person who you just denied power.  This creates tremendous friction.  You also make yourself appear unprofessional in nature and risk your job.

It takes a lot of patience and will-power to be "professional", in the end it's worth it.  I take my frustrations out at the gym.  (Flexes!)

Dave B.
Thursday, June 12, 2003

Do you mean "I *hate* doing X" or "Doing X is beneath me / a waste of my precious time"?

If someone says to me "I really hate writing docs", I will be sympathetic but make them do it anyway. I will make allowances for bad grammar and poor style and I will try to move as much of it off to someone who likes it and is good at it, but all jobs have bits you don't enjoy and sometimes I need you to just bite the bullet and do it.

Some of the other suggestions made would really piss me off. Don't just fake incompetence or procrastinate until I have to find someone else to do it. Have the guts to look me in the eye and say "Look, I'll do it but I won't like it". And then knuckle down and do it.

Friday, June 13, 2003

As an employee, it's important to at least seem like you want to be cooperative. The boss is, by definition, the boss and we are there to do the work that needs to be done.
On the other hand I think it's ok to express how we feel about it. You can say Of course I will do it, but it isn't really one of my strengths.
Also, if you hate system administration-type work, it could be because you aren't used to it.
If you hate something because it's too difficult, my advice is learn how to do it. If you hate it because it's too easy and doesn't require any of your skills, then maybe your boss should be made aware that an unskilled person could do it and it would cost the company less.

The Real PC
Friday, June 13, 2003

You have to wonder what would have happened to Bartelby if he had been asked other questions. What would have happened if asked "Would you like to sit here in this cell for the rest of your life?" he replied "I prefer not to"?

Sometimes inaction causes more damage than action.

Friday, June 13, 2003

I actually tried this once, when I worked in a university archives.

I was one of two student employees in the archives, both of us managed by our boss, Ed.  One of the student employees came back to me and said, "Ed thought you might want to help me clean off these shelves and move the books" (or whatever the task was).

I thought, since Ed had said, "might want to," that I was open to refuse this job, if I "didn't want to."

So I said, "No, I don't think so, I would prefer not to."

He walked away.

Three or four minutes later, Ed marches back, very purposefully, and says in a very abrupt way, "Get up and help him do that."

That's the only time I have ever refused to do something, but I am glad I did.  It was a learning experience.

Friday, June 13, 2003

Near the beginning of my project, I went to a politically influential co-worker and said:

"You think you want me to help out with sysadmin tasks.  Unfortunately, once I start doing that, my programming will screech to a halt.  Within two months, you will have deprived the company of a programmer.  I know this from bitter experience at previous jobs.  So if you want new features, you need to find somebody else to sysadmin."

This is true for a lot of programmers--the constant interruptions of sysadmining, even if they only add up to an hour a day, cut producitivity by over 50%.  You probably couldn't program and work as a receptionist, either.

If your boss does creative work, he or she will understand.

J. Random Hacker
Friday, June 13, 2003

Personally, I'd just say something like, "Well, I'm certainly capable of doing that job...but I think you'd prefer I didn't - and I'll tell you why, if you have a minute. I'll do whatever you prefer, but I figure you'll appreciate knowing about this..."

You then simply explain that working on this problem will be like driving a nail into a board...with your head. It sucks away your energy and your drive, and while you can do it, it seems impossible to do it anywhere near as well as you could do something you could take the same level of pleasure in as your other work like [example].

Here's the key: managers like to make informed, productive choices (preferable ones which leave as little uncertainty as possible, and which generally make them feel good for having been useful).

Remember that their whole job is to make decisions about what other people should be doing, so if you just say "no", you are effectively doing the equivalent of them deciding what algorithem, tools, language, or technique to use in solving coding, or refactoring your code without your consent, or deciding what variable names you should use. In effect, whether you intend it or not, you are saying "I know how to do your job better than you do, and can do it as well as my own job - so you're useless, really." You see, even if you feel that way, that isn't a good way to get people to behave as you would like them to behave.

To explain your concerns, lay out the evidence, and then: Give Them The Choice. If they just want you to do what you hate, and you've layed out your case properly, then you are really only left with A) Do it, B) Refuse (really bad idea - this decision is "strictly dominated" by the next one), or C) Quit/Resign.

People probably get into more trouble trying to keep secret what they shouldn't and not explaining themselves than by being secretive and keeping things to themselves - usually.

Friday, June 13, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home