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If You Have a Hard Time Saying 'No' at Work, Try This

How to say 'no' without damaging team dynamics.

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The modern leader is constantly bombarded with ideas, suggestions, requests, questions and complaints. Each one must be handled quickly, fairly and precisely; in many cases, there isn’t much room for error, but it can still be hard to refuse or say the dreaded "no."

How can you maintain your good relations with colleagues and team members without jeopardizing the quality of decision-making?

The answer is to decide on the outcome and then work on the messaging  how to break less-than-optimal news to the other person.

Related: The Problems With Servant Leadership

Let’s talk about some ways to say "no" without damaging team dynamics. 

1. Contingency or timing

Everyone appreciates that timing is of the essence, and multiple factors are always at play. Formulating that some other decisions (for example, company budget) need to be finalized (and also go the company's way) before you can support a given request is a reasonable way of saying you like the idea, and it’s just a matter of waiting for the right moment and conditions to execute on it.

If your excuse isn’t relevant or is used too often, this can become transparent and break trust. However, if the team is aware of the calendar and major events, and you’re upfront that things might go sideways, this is easy to enforce.

2. Authority: Not in my hands

This is an old favorite  “I’m just the messenger”  passing along the bad news from management, making it possible for you to say if you were in a position of power, you may have been able to help more.

But this also reduces our perceived authority on a relative basis, and some people may feel emboldened to go “over your head” the next time. To prevent this, you can be transparent about decisions you can make and those you can’t, and keep open lines of communication to prevent unpleasantness.

3. Feasibility: Not possible

The shortest end run is when we have objective metrics that allow us to say "no" without any personal elements getting involved: not enough time, not enough money, not technologically or legally possible, etc.

Most decisions are more a matter of relative value or a mix of objective and subjective. You can lean on the objective numbers to an extent, but you may have to add on layers like “strategic priority” to push things over the edge.  

Related: What's the Real Difference Between Leadership and Management?

4. Mixed answer: Yes and no 

Though we’d dearly like to avoid long-drawn out discussions, sometimes the answer really is “It depends on…” You may find the problem or concern valid, but not the solution. Or there’s part of the solution that works and other parts need to be finessed, or the concept may work, but the execution doesn’t. In short, the longer conversation may be the way forward. Regardless, the goal is to collaborate on a more complete answer to the problem or the execution of the solution.

This approach, obviously, takes more time, but it may be worth it to foster collaboration and engagement. Just keep an eye on the clock.

When should it just be a "no"?

You will notice that all the above techniques work only if the leader is as transparent and upfront as possible with the team members. While saying “no” is something we want to minimize, that can never take precedence over trust and authenticity.

In fact, there are some situations when you may well want to say “no”  if enforcing discipline or cultivating a learning moment, for example.

In the end, avoiding saying “no” is not about avoiding pain to the other: It is about fostering a work environment that is collaborative and learning-oriented while being upfront about the reality that life and work are complex, so sometimes, answers are just not that simple.

So the next time you get bombarded with questions at work, don’t dread saying "no." Just say "yes" to a great conversation.

Related: 8 Ways to Make Sure Your Leadership Style Isn't Offensive

Arjun Buxi

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Arjun Buxi is an executive communication coach who works with senior leaders in Silicon Valley tech companies to improve their executive presence, persuasion and leadership skills. He is the author of the book “Communication Means Talking Together."