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Ways to say NO politely as a CEO

Ways to say NO politely as a CEO

As a CEO, you must motivate and encourage various leadership teams to come up with ideas, doubts and growth opportunities that benefit the organization. This entails an everyday occurrence of executives and leaders coming up to you for guidance, discussion and suggestions that may in turn become very time consuming for you. While it is important to encourage your leaders and teams about these conversations, there are certain times when as a CEO you must say NO.  You know this, right? But still saying ‘No’ becomes difficult and onerous.

“You don’t want to be seen as a ‘no person,’” says Karen Dillon, co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?, “You want to be viewed as a ‘yes person,’ a ‘go-to person’ — a team player.”

If you rarely say no, you will end up sacrificing precious time. According to psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, “prioritize a person’s needs over your own, you’ll find your productivity will suffer and resentment will mount.”

The trouble is, agreeing to support and guide too many people personally leaves you stretched and stressed.

Saying no is vital to both your success and the success of your organization — but that doesn’t make it any easier to do, says Holly Weeks, the author of Failure to Communicate. However, it is important to realize that saying ‘No’ does not have to imply unpleasantness for any of parties involved. You have to master the art of saying ‘No’ in such a way that the other person is grateful for your candid response. You can say ‘No’ in such a way that the other person can still make progress and believe that you helped him/her.

Here are certain ways that can ensure that the conversation can go as smoothly as possible.

  1. Be politely firm: When a leader approaches you with an idea or request that you cannot commit to, it is essential to listen and let him/her know in a polite manner that it will not be possible for you to get involved. You should not keep him/her under the impression that you will get to his request at some point in time in future. The leader will hold back on making progress and the work will suffer.
  2. Delegate where possible/required: If the request is reasonable and you lack the necessary time to go through it, it is beneficial to delegate the work to a suitable person who can help him with his request. It is also necessary that you recognize that you are personally not an expert in everything, you may lack the depth of understanding required to support the request or evaluate the idea. In such a case you must delegate the effort of evaluation to a more knowledgeable person.
  3. Seek Clarity: If you feel that the Idea is interesting but lacks sufficient detail, ask the person to work with other colleagues to build it out further before bringing it back up to you. Let them know that you need to see more clarity and a better business alignment before you can get involved or pull in other team members.
  4. Provide context: While saying No, it is helpful to explain that why you are refusing to support his/her request. If time doesn’t permit, do share your inability to find time. Business leader Kathy Bloomgarden advice CEOs to “take a step back and provide your rationale in the context of the company’s goals and priorities.”
  5. Say ‘No’ to ideas that do not align with business at this point: While every leader in the company strives to bring forth better ideas that will increase the productivity of the organization, not all ideas align with the business agenda. It is essential to point out such ideas so that leaders can bring better ideas next time that they understand will fit the business for the company. According to financial adviser Andrew Schrage, you can “restate the problem” and “focus on the things you are able to do, rather than the ones you aren’t.” This way, it’s possible to say ‘No’ and yet retain their loyalty and gratitude.

The idea of saying ‘No’ involves a lot of stress for many leaders. To determine whether it is the right time to say ‘No’, one can ask the following questions to help make a better judgement:

  • What makes me say ‘No’ in this situation?
  • What value it will add to the organization/business if we do this right now?
  • What impact my does ‘No’ have?
  • How best can I say No to the person in front?

Say ‘No’ when necessary, delegate whenever possible and always share context! Lead with clarity and empathy.

About the Author

Ms. Manbir Kaur is an Executive and Leadership Coach (Professional Certificated Coach, PCC - ICF). She is also a Conversational Intelligence(C-IQ) Enhanced Skills Practitioner and a key-note speaker.