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Saying no requires a particular kind of skill, because an effective business leader can’t always be a “yes man” (or woman). Obviously, a CEO can’t give the thumbs up to every raise request, every idea and every client demand that comes across her desk. If she does, she’s not really running the show, but rather her fear of saying no is the star.

Likewise, if the word “no” rolls off the tongue a little too easily, a manager runs the risk of shutting down team communications, creativity and honest feedback. The smart business leader must learn to walk the yes-no balance beam with the agility of a gymnast. In doing so they develop a special level of leadership effectiveness – saying no in a yes kind of way. 

First, let’s explore some of the reasons why a person might lean heavily to the no side and why this can lead to trouble. Sometimes we say no out of convenience or to avoid conflict. Maybe it’s simply easier to tell an employee he can’t change the project concept, because switching gears will cause too much upheaval.

Other times we say no to appease our own egos. We must remember, however, that saying no might thwart creativity. Perhaps the employee who wants to alter the project concept has an idea that suits the client even better, and the temporary upheaval will be worth it.

Saying no too many times sets up a negative environment, and negativity can stifle communication. An employee who has encountered a sticky situation with a client may not want to come clean about it to his boss if said boss is a Negative Nick or Nancy.

A good business leader is one who encourages openness and honesty amongst their team and essentially has an imaginary sign on their desk that says, “bad news welcome here.”

So what happens when you absolutely have to say no, but you don’t want to cut the lines of communication or halt creativity? That’s when you have to do a backflip on that balance beam and say no, but in a yes kind of way. Here are principles for executing this maneuver:

Affirm the Requester – Affirm the requester, even if you cannot affirm the request. Example: “That’s a great question, Jennifer.”

Appreciate the Request – Express appreciation for the request and be sincere. If your employees are asking questions, that means they are engaged in their work, and engagement is the core to all business results. Example: “That’s a great idea, Jennifer. I can appreciate the thought behind it.”

Seek Alternative Answers – Look for viable alternatives to the no. Is there a compromise? Another option?  Something that capitalizes on the idea without total commitment?  Often times with a little creativity, there are small yeses that can stand in for a total no.

Avoid the Stupid Look – Avoid any language that suggests the request was stupid—even if it was indeed a stupid question and you want to roll your eyes as far back into your head as they will go.  A yes kind of no encourages creativity, communication and honesty as a process, even when the ideas are less than stellar.

Articulate Your Rationale – Articulate the rationale behind your answer if appropriate, but remember that not all no’s require a rationale. Sometimes a no must stand alone in the interest of leadership authority and effective organizational discipline.  If there is a reason to the no explain it.  If not, a no is enough for now.

One of the hardest things about saying no is feeling all right about it. However, as a business leader it’s your prerogative to do so, no matter what—even if it comes across as negative. You can’t walk the balance beam all the time. Sometimes you’ve got to dismount and stick the landing with a firm and resolved no.

Yet with a little intentionality, your no’s can be conveyed in yes kinds of ways.

What challenges do you face in saying no?

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