As a leader, learning how and when to say “no” is one of the most important skills you’ll develop. For many, it can also be one of the most challenging. Whether it’s a request for your own time or a team member asking for money or resources, you know you can’t (or shouldn’t) fulfill it, but you feel bad about turning the person down. However, if you’re confident you’re making the right decision for yourself or the company, you have nothing to feel guilty about.
Below, 11 members of Business Journals Leadership Trust share their best tips for saying “no,” guilt-free. Follow their advice the next time you have to turn down a request.
1. Explain why you’re saying ‘no.’
When I was in my 20s, I worked for a boss who would never tell me “no.” He might have felt he was doing me a favor, but hearing someone express interest in an idea and never execute it is much more frustrating than hearing “no.” I learned from this. When I say “no,” I give a reason why. And many times, “no” just means “not right now.” Let people know when that is the case. – Linda Bishop, Thought Transformation
2. Categorize requests.
I would say putting these requests into categories helps. For instance, in the fundraising world, donors may say “no,” but it may be qualified with “no, not right now” or “no to that specific request.” And sometimes, it is just “no.” Understand what is really being asked of you and then categorize your response to the request. – Muriel Smith, De La Salle, Inc.
3. Engage your head and heart fully.
Say “no” with both your head and heart fully engaged. From the head, be clear about the facts and the rationale: You’re doing what is best for business. From the heart, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and be prepared to genuinely listen. Use this opportunity to better understand that person and what motivates them to build your workplace relationship with them. – Daniel Serfaty, Aptima, Inc.
4. Strive for ‘radical candor.’
Strive to establish a company culture of open communication or “radical candor,” as Kim Scott calls it. Radical candor happens when you care personally for the other person and challenge them directly. With this in place, leaders can confidently say “no” when a request doesn’t match their personal goals or company protocol. Team members won’t be offended because they will expect and respect your honesty. – E. Tanner Milne, Menlo Group Commercial Real Estate
5. Leave your emotions out of it.
Never make decisions emotionally. Focus on the business strategy that allows you to say “no” when it doesn’t make sense and be able to carry on with a great relationship. Emotional decisions are the ones that keep people in uncomfortable places. We are afraid that someone might get hurt, so we’d rather avoid it. It hurts them more if you ignore them than if you’re upfront — say “no” and move on. – Solomon Thimothy, OneIMS
6. Be authentic and empathetic.
I believe the key is authenticity and genuine empathy. If people know that you truly care about them and you’ve proven that with your actions, when you have to say “no” they should already trust that you are doing it for the right reasons. The hardest part as a leader is living the values that you espouse, so when your people see you as genuine and empathetic, it makes saying “no” much easier. – Jonathan Keyser, Keyser
7. Acknowledge, clarify and transform.
Acknowledge. Clarify. Transform. Understanding the ACT process will help leaders say “no” while ensuring the person making the request understands why the leader must do so at this time. For example: “I understand how important this topic is for you, but the situation at present is (briefly explain). What we can do now is this, or we can revisit this in the future.” Leaders should be able to ACT. – Joe Reilly, National Drug Screening, Inc.
8. Don’t delay your decision.
Having to say “no” at times is inevitable and required as a leader. But to maintain morale, don’t stall your decision, leaving requests unanswered. Offer alternative solutions. Explain the reasons behind the decision. People are accustomed to hearing “no,” but they don’t appreciate not knowing why the decision was made. Keep them engaged by expressing gratitude for their continued work. – Jeffrey Bartel, Hamptons Group, LLC
9. Be assertive.
Think about all of the times you have said “yes” to requests you shouldn’t have and then lost focus on your priorities. You can still be assertive while being polite. Try something like, “I would love to help you with that, but (list your priorities). I hope you understand.” Going this route allows you to be clear about your own needs first while also honoring theirs. – Scott Scully, Abstrakt Marketing Group
10. Bank relationship ‘investments’ before making a ‘withdrawal.’
Every transaction with your team is either an investment or a withdrawal. Saying “no” is often a withdrawal. Make sure you have made enough investments in each relationship that the balance is always positive. – Paul Herring, 101 Solutions LLC