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Difficult conversations: How to say no

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Difficult conversations: How to say no

Updated: March 27th, 2020

Difficult conversations: How to say no

Having employees who are enthusiastic about your company’s work and mission is important. It’s a great (and rare) sign of employee engagement when you have people pitching ideas, asking for promotions, and more. After all, employees who are raring to go above and beyond their role make dedicated, loyal employees!

Unfortunately, as a manager, sometimes you will need to say no. Even if you think that the marketing plan is a great one, even if you love the person’s work ethic, even if you have room in the budget.

It’s always hard shooting down an idea — especially if it’s a good one. But for whatever reason, sometimes the time or place or proposal just isn’t quite right.

Here are five tips for how to say “no” as a manager (without ruining your relationship or their enthusiasm):

1. Be kind, but be clear.

There’s an important balance to strike when telling employees “no”: You don’t want to be too negative, otherwise the person may stop bringing new ideas to the table (or worse, quit). But you also want to be firm — this isn’t a negotiation, and you’ve made a decision. Express your appreciation for their proposal, but make your message crystal-clear.

2. Own it.

If the decision was your choice, you should take responsibility for it. This may seem obvious, but a startling number of managers are all-too-ready to try and blame someone else or make excuses for why you need to decline. Stand by your decision — your employees will respect you more if you do.

3. Don’t be overly apologetic.

If you are tripping over yourself apologizing, it looks like one of two things is happening: either you’re not really the person making the call, or you’re being disingenuous (if you were really that sorry, you wouldn’t do it, right?).

You can offer a brief “I’m sorry to say…” but don’t get carried away. Your employee may feel hurt or frustrated by your decision, but you don’t need to grovel for forgiveness. Stand tall.

4. Explain your reasoning.

Don’t mutter something about “budget” if that’s not quite accurate or wave it off to a vague “other things going on.” Even without seeing the books, employees can often tell when a company is doing well enough to be able to afford certain things (like a raise), and they deserve more specificity than “because I said so.” Clearly delineate your thoughts on the matter, and explain why you feel it’s not the right time.

5. Suggest alternatives.

If you think there could be opportunity for a smaller-scale version of their idea, or next quarter might be a better time to execute it, say so — but don’t provide false hope. Kicking the ball down the road isn’t helpful to anyone, and will only put you back in this same scenario in the future. Do your future self a favor and put your foot down now if necessary.

You’re already doing a great job if your employees are offering new and innovative ideas — and if you can be supportive even when you’re declining to move forward with these suggestions, their continued enthusiasm will pay off tenfold.


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