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Tough Love: How to Say “No” to Your Team


Sometimes you just have to say “no”. Heather Foley looks at how you can soften the blow and stop your decision from ruining team morale.

I’m guessing that you’re a great boss. I’m guessing you understand that it’s good to say yes as much as possible to your team members. After all, having happy, engaged and motivated people on your team is hugely important.

And, in these times of high employment, you know that there are competitors out there ready to make all sorts of promises to lure your people to the ‘other side’.

However, there are still times when you have to say “no” to their requests. Perhaps it’s because you know it’s the right thing to do, perhaps because your hands are tied. Either way, when you have to say no, you have to say no. It’s tough love. And while you can’t control the fact that you have to say “no”, what you can control is how your people take the news.

Step 1 – Listen carefully to your team members’ requests

It’s crucial that you listen carefully to your team members’ requests in order to understand exactly what they are and why they’re making them.

What’s more, it’s important to take time: don’t rush this. If you misunderstand the requests your people make, you may be saying “no” unnecessarily. Also, unless your team members really believe that you have sincerely listened to their requests, they’ll feel sore, regardless of how you approach saying “no”.

Step 2 – Ask for some time to properly consider any requests

Don’t feel pressured into making an instant decision. Ask for some time to properly consider any requests. Not only will this give you time to reflect on the considerations and the best decision, it will also demonstrate to your team that you are taking their requests seriously.

As part of your considerations, think about:

  • What happens if you say “yes”
  • What happens if you say “no”
  • What the alternatives are.

Step 3 – Brainstorm different options that might work

Assuming you feel you need to say “no”, return to your team and check why they’ve made that particular request.

Establish that, if there is a different way to achieve their objectives, they’d be open to it. By doing this, you’re giving yourself the chance to say “yes”, rather than “no”.

It’s also worth exploring alternatives. Brainstorm different options that might work. Even if none of the ideas achieve the objective or are acceptable to you, your team members will be grateful that you’ve tried hard to accommodate their request.

Step 4 – Explain why it’s not the right thing to do

At times, even after all analysis, exploration and brainstorming, you still have to say “no”. Happily, because of the thorough and considerate approach you’ve taken, there’s every chance that your team members will be understanding of the situation.

However, whether they are or not, you still need to invest the time in explaining:

  • You need to say “no” to this particular request
  • Why it’s not the right thing to do
  • If things change, you’re happy to explore it again
  • You hope your team will understand and accept your reasons

Step 5 – Remind your team it’s good they can make such requests

Heather Foley

Heather Foley

It’s also important to emphasise how delighted you are that your team members feel they can make requests of you, and that next time you hope you can say “yes”.

It’s hard to say “no”, especially to hard-working, high-achieving team members. But, there’ll be times when you must. And, if you follow a few positive steps, you’ll keep your team members engaged, even when they don’t get what they want.

It’s part of your role and it’s what tough love is all about.

With thanks to Heather Foley, a consultant at etsplc.com

Published On: 9th Mar 2016 - Last modified: 19th May 2017
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