When a Leader Says No

Sign reading "no"

‘No’ is a word that holds incredible power. The word itself is short, strong, and impossible to ignore. However, as social individuals who are inclined to find opportunities to please and support one another, wielding such a powerful word is both difficult and rare. Saying the word ‘no’ makes many people uncomfortable. The fear of disappointing or angering another individual often forces individuals to say yes to things that they don’t want to do. In the end, we say yes to far too much and become bitter and burnt out due to that one word.

It’s a problem that must be addressed.

While no one wants to create a “Culture of No” in their organization, there is value in explicitly granting permission to say no. Many times in my career, I’ve had leaders tell me “if you can’t take on that project, just say no.” And while those words seemed nice, I never believed them. So, like most upwardly supportive employees, I said yes to everything. Then something powerful happened. I saw a leader say no to his boss. He said no and nothing else. He didn’t follow up with an explanation. He didn’t apologize. He just said no. Just like how Merriam-Webster adds the trendiest new words to the dictionary each year, suddenly the word no became incredibly popular.

While everyone had been given the freedom to set boundaries, no one believed those boundaries would be enforced and respected until they saw it with their own eyes. As a leader, modeling good work-life balance behavior is vital because every employee is watching for social cues they can mimic and adapt for themselves. Saying no isn’t about being unsupportive, it’s a reflection of focus. And when we give license to say no, we’re enabling the team to prioritize their time, stay laser focused on the most impactful activities, and showing that we value their time.

While modeling the behavior of saying no is important for leaders, it’s also critical that leaders coach employees on how to identify when no is appropriate. When a leader says no liberally, that allows them to find time and space to say yes to the most valuable, important requests that align with their strategic vision. If the request doesn’t support the leader’s mission, then it is out of scope and doesn’t deserve energy or attention. Similarly, all employees must determine their own mission statement. When you’ve  established who you are and the critical role you play in the organization, it provides clarity around what is worth a yes, and what requires a no. When this process is applied at the enterprise level, it removes the emotional response of having your request denied. It isn’t personal; it’s about the mission.

Saying no isn’t about rejecting the requests of others. It’s about empowering yourself to focus on the most impactful contribution you can make.