Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on June 18, 2020.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, Joseph Grenny, a social scientist for business performance, offers four ways you can say "no" at work without offending your colleagues.
Embrace uncertainty on 3 levels: as a leader, with your team, and across your organization
Why saying 'no' is so challenging
Saying no can "define the contours of your character and the shape of your life," according to Grenny. For instance, saying no to something that may compromise your values allows you to be more secure in those values. But sometimes, that is easier said than done, especially in the workplace, Grenny notes. Telling someone no inherently generates disappointment in the person whose request you're denying.
The key, according to Grenny, is knowing how to say no. "Your goal is to ensure disappointment doesn't escalate to insult," Grenny writes.
With that goal in mind, he offers four ways to mitigate the risk of insult and reduce disappointment among your colleagues.
To make his case, he points to the experience of Karla, a CEO of a nonprofit that had achieved the mission for which it was formed. Since the nonprofit had met its mission, "[s]ome on the board, and most of the executive team, were determined to find a new mission rather than disband," while "others were adamant that the organization shouldn't simply continue spending donor money by default," Grenny explains. "Executives presented three possible new strategies," but "Karla saw nothing of substance in any of them," according to Grenny.
The 4 secrets to telling your colleagues 'no'
- Share your logic. Instead of simply saying "no," share the logic, reasoning, and values behind your decision, Grenny writes. For instance, Karla should not just say, "I vote we let the staff go and begin an orderly shutdown," but should cite data that led her to the position. If you state your conclusion with no explanation, the listeners "get to make up the path you took to get there," according to Grenny. Instead, control your own narrative by citing all of the data and facts that lead you to your conclusion. "Don't leave a mystery for others to solve," Grenny writes.
- Acknowledge when there are value trade-offs. Big decisions usually involve value trade-offs, according to Grenny, which means you need to "[l]et others know you sympathize with the values your position compromises." In Karla's case, she should show those who want to keep the team together that she values their opinion, even if hers is different. As such, she could say, "'I agree with those who think the world would be best served by keeping this team together to do more good. I just can't see continuing when we haven’t found a purpose,'" Grenny writes.
- Be confident, but thoughtful. When turning someone down, it's "important to take a firm stand, but not an overstated one," according to Grenny. Statements like, "'The right answer is …'" will alienate other employees and might "provoke[e] unnecessary conflict," according to Grenny. Instead, "[s]how that you're a thoughtful person who has arrived at a conclusion" by using statements like, "'I've concluded …'" or "'I believe …'"
- Ask first. Sometimes the person you want to say no to is a boss or manager. In those cases, "it can be helpful to ask permission to say no" as show of respect for your manager's authority, Grenny writes. Instead of simply saying "no" to a request from your boss, Grenny suggests you say, "'Boss, you've asked me to take on a new project. I think it is a bad idea for me to take it on, and I'd like to share my reasons. If, however, you don't want to hear them, I'll take it on and do my best." In most situations, your boss will hear you out. But, "If the boss refuses to hear your reservations, you get to decide if this is an environment you want to spend a significant part of your life in," Grenny writes.
In Karla's case, the nonprofit eventually shutdown. "Karla did her best to make her position known without creating unnecessary offense. Her tact and empathy helped. And her resolve through this experience helped define the person she would be in handling countless future dilemmas," Grenny writes (Grenny, Harvard Business Review, 8/5).