The Workplace

How to say 'no'—without losing your team


By Craig Pirner, Managing Director

As a leader you've likely faced many requests you simply can't deliver on: "I don't want to work on Fridays or weekends"; "I'd like a raise"; "I've been in this role for two months and I'm ready to advance to the next level."

Download our list of sample questions to uncover missing context from a request

I've heard requests like these, too—and I'll admit it's tempting to dismiss them as outlandish and impossible to deliver on. But after some deeper communication with the team member, I often find the request isn't as crazy as it seemed. I've found that I either lacked all of the context I needed to understand the request, or the team member lacked key information about how these types of decisions are made.

Our research on employee engagement has revealed that it is possible to respond to these requests in a way that helps engage your team (without promising to deliver things you can't). And it's critical that you find ways to do so: Our research shows organizations with highly engaged team members achieve better patient satisfaction scores, have a stronger culture of safety, and are able to retain strong performers.

How to respond, when you have to say 'no'

When you hear a request that sounds way off base, there are two key steps to follow:

First, find out what your team member is really asking for. When a team member makes an unreasonable request, assume there's a deeper question or concern hiding behind it—and start asking questions to better understand those other factors. For a new team member who asks not to work on Fridays or weekends, ask yourself, what else might be going on? For example, maybe he or she is feeling overwhelmed by the job and not sure how to manage it. The team member's request might be to take every Friday off—but what he or she is really saying is, "I feel overwhelmed, and I need your help."

Second, find alternative ways to solve the problem. Once you've uncovered what the team member is really looking for, you can share additional context and propose ways to address the underlying need. With our example of a team member feeling overwhelmed, you could share that many new hires often feel overwhelmed initially—and direct him or her to sources of support they can tap into. You might also share the standard process for determining your team's schedule, and describe how decisions are made about which team member works which shift. We've found that providing this extra layer of transparency can alleviate staff member concerns about workload.

Want to learn more? Download a quick list of questions to ask your team member—and yourself—when you hear what sounds like an outlandish request.

Download the List