Too often, “no” becomes one of the most fraught words in a leader’s vocabulary, perhaps because they were afraid to say “no” to their superiors as they climbed the corporate ladder. Some leaders have trouble saying “no” because they do not want to disappoint other people. However, by taking on too much responsibility, leaders put their reputation, their mental health, and their physical health at risk.
Other times, leaders may be afraid of hurting business relationships or stealing the inspiration from an employee by saying “no.” While these fears are valid, there are also ways of saying “no” in a way that strengthens relationships and still allows employees to feel inspired. Saying “no” in a constructive manner takes practice and planning. Below are some tips for leaders who have trouble with this very important word.
Establish and respect clear boundaries.
When leaders have trouble saying “no,” the first step in fixing the issue is reducing the number of incoming requests by setting boundaries. Through boundaries, leaders can set guidelines about when people can come to them and what types of requests are appropriate. Boundaries and delegation of some responsibilities ensure that leaders have enough time to complete their most important work. Once boundaries are set, they should be made public and respected. Granting an exception is a slippery slope that can cause the boundaries to lose their meaning.
Give context for the decision.
Relationships are more often hurt by a rejection when there’s no context for the decision. If a leader doesn’t take the time to explain the issues involved, the requester is left to assume the reasons their request was denied. To avoid this, the leader should explain the reasons behind the refusal, whether they relate to budget, workload, or other issues. By taking the time to give context, the leader may not have to deal with as many similar requests in the future, and the requester gains a better idea of how to approach the subject going forward. And with context, the requester may think of a better solution to the problem that avoids the current constraints. Context is also a great way to refocus a team on more pressing goals and priorities, especially if the request was off target.
Look for a different solution.
A “no” does not always have to be the end of the conversation. If the leader is legitimately interested, it could be worth investing time to come to a compromise that will help both parties. In this case, leaders should try to understand the motivation behind a particular ask, and see whether it can be answered or addressed in a different way. Sometimes, passion projects can become tangential to the goals of a company, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to align the two. Exploring these options can often keep team members engaged and lead to significant innovation in the organization.
Create an open dialogue.
Sometimes, the best way to say “no” is to make the decision by consensus. With the permission of the asker, leaders can bring a question to the table for an open dialogue with a larger group. This type of conversation can bring in unique insights that could result in the asker changing the petition altogether, or the leader uncovering a better solution than simply turning it down. Open dialogues allow team members to have a voice and feel involved in the decision-making process, which is important for morale. Importantly, leaders need to respect the opinions of the group. The leader holds ultimate responsibility for the decision, but that decision can only go against the consensus a limited number of times before people start to lose faith.
Buy more time before responding.
In most cases, leaders shouldn’t feel pressured to provide an answer right away. Taking time to talk to colleagues or advisors is always a good idea when dealing with weighty questions or big requests. A trusted confidante can be a great person to hash out the pluses and minuses of specific responses. Rather than coming across as rude, asking for more time shows that the leader is taking the question seriously and giving it the consideration it deserves. A “no” hurts less when the asker understands that a lot of thought went into the answer, while an immediate “no” can come across as much more dismissive than the leader intends. Plus, with extra time, the leader can more clearly lay out the case for the ultimate decision.
Don’t make it personal.
If the “no” is necessary, it’s important for a leader to let the requester know that the decision is a response to the question—not a personal rejection of the requester or a critique of their job performance. When telling an employee “no,” it can be helpful to begin by communicating appreciation for the person’s work and what they’ve brought to the company, before explaining that it’s not the right time for the request and then detailing why. Leaders should ensure that people never exit a conversation feeling personally affronted. To avoid this impression, leaders should avoid acting defensive—whether through their words, tone, or body language. This comes across as confrontational. Another strategy is to sandwich the “no” between two positive statements, but it’s important not to become too formulaic with denials of requests.