Why Great Leaders Must Learn to Say No (& Tips on How To)

Words have power, and some, like the word ‘no’ are like a double-edged sword in the hands of a leader. With one strike it can both free up the person saying it and crush the hopes of the person on the receiving end. Because of this, some leaders misuse it or are altogether afraid to say no. Below we discuss why and how leaders should say no.

While it’s tempting to try to please everyone and say yes to everything, it’s always a futile effort. There are numerous benefits to responding in the negative when it’s necessary. Here are some reasons why every leader should learn to say no.

To let your team focus on the core objectives

As a leader in the workplace, you are the captain of the ship. That means that the responsibility for the direction the business is going lies squarely on your shoulders. If you are doing things right then you have probably established some SMART goals for your business.

It is on you to evaluate if the daily decisions you make steer your business towards those goals. Confronted with ideas that change that course, you should have the courage and conviction to say no.

To allow yourself to focus on your core objectives

What about your own personal objectives? Just as entrepreneurs are advised to separate their personal finances from the company’s so you must separate your own personal goals from the business ones. Constantly shifting the latter in favour of work is a recipe for stress and burnout.

Keep in mind that caring about your own health is one of the qualities of a great leader. If you have been planning to take a vacation for the last two years but always say yes to lead the latest project, you need to learn to say no.

Many a good leader have sacrificed their health and family at the altar of the job. Time away from work is important because amongst other things it helps you to recharge and get new perspectives that can actually make your work better.

To empower your employees

When you learn to say no, you can create an opportunity for someone else on your team to say yes. The reality is that you cannot do everything yourself. It will become stressful and take away learning opportunities from everyone else. Saying no, allows you to delegate some tasks.

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Delegating effectively can be good for you and your team. It gives room for your team to stretch their skills and to show that you trust them to get important stuff done.

To let a bad idea die

It is hard to say no because we want to be nice and want to encourage dialogue and people to speak out. But if you receive an idea that will cost money, will harm the brand. The best thing is to just say no.

If you offer the employee a clear reason for saying no, it can have an upside. It offers you another opportunity to clarify your objectives and what ideas you are looking for from your team.

To let a good idea die

It is a little harder to learn to say no to good ideas. This might be the idea that will move the project to the next level fastest but what are the cost implications of you agreeing to it? Can you afford it? If the answer is no, then you must let the idea go.

Sometimes the resource that you do not have enough of might be time. Directing labour to pursue this idea may impact another leg of the project. Remember, as the leader, you will have information that the rest of your team might not be privy to. Saying yes might have far reaching negative effects. In this case, stand firm and say no.

To show your value to your client

When a client hires you, you want to make them happy and what better way to do that than to agree to all their ideas and give them everything that they want. This might make you popular with them but what happens when you come up against a client with an idea that will be harmful to their own business?

You need to learn to say no to such ideas and justify why the client hired you (which was to do what was best for them and not be their yes-man). It might be hard but the client will respect you more when that no ends up being a good judgment call.

learn to say no

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How leaders should say no

Learning how to say no should also be accompanied with how to say no. Said without consideration, no too many times can be a big demoraliser. Here are some tips to say no with good results.

Listen first

The last thing you should do is interrupt someone in the middle of their presentation to say no. This will show that you do not value them or the time they put into their idea. Instead, give them time to get to the end.

Ask questions

Questions not only show that you are paying attention to what your employee is saying, they might end up revealing something else. Like the fact that that idea can be incorporated in an already existing policy or can be adopted by another department.

Give a reason why you said no

Just saying no is not good enough. Tell your employee why you are saying no. This will not only help them understand but give them the confidence to approach you with other ideas in the future.

End your no with an encouragement

This is particularly helpful when it was a good idea. Say no but compliment them and thank them for a good idea. After all, showing appreciation is one way to boost employee morale. It will also signal to the others that you are happy to hear their ideas

Be clear

If you must say no, say no. Not “maybe” or “I’ll think about it”. It is unfair on yourself and your employee if you are going to say no eventually but keep dragging it out. You might think that you are being kind, instead you are taking from time that could be used to pursue other ideas.

In Summary

Learning to say no is highly beneficial, especially when you learn how to do so without permanently closing the door on your employees’ ideas.  As a leader you take many decisions after considering options and with good reason. This same consideration should follow your decisions to say no.


Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.