How to Say "No" Without Killing Morale

Jaimy Ford by Jaimy Ford on May 31, 2013
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You may be the nicest boss on the planet, but you will still say “no” to your employees from time to time.

If you are understaffed, you will turn down a vacation request. If money is tight, you will decline a request for a raise. For any number of other reasons, you will reject employees’ ideas. It doesn’t mean you’re a jerk; it just means you are doing what’s right for your business.

However, hearing “no” from the boss can be demoralizing, especially when employees believe that you owe them a “yes.” Tell your hardworking staffer who’s logged 20 hours of overtime this month that she can’t take that much-deserved family vacation and you are basically asking her to disengage or quit.

If you want your business to succeed, you can’t avoid these types of scenarios. But how you turn employees down can make a huge difference in how they react.

Here’s some advice for saying “no” without killing morale:

  • Establish ground rules. If you have policies in place and your employees understand the rules, you can prevent problems. Although some people may still try to circumvent the rules, your “no” will be less painful because they will be expecting it.
  • Be firm and confident. Your decision is best for the business, right? Stand behind it. Don’t beat around the bush or sugarcoat the matter. If you sound hesitant or appear to be wavering, employees will continue to press you.
  • Provide a legitimate reason. Offer a business-related reason for denying a request or a suggestion. For example, “I think your idea is outstanding. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the cash flow to allocate to new ventures right now.”
  • Don’t apologize. Again, you are making a business decision not a personal one. Saying “I’m sorry” implies that you are responsible for employees’ anger or frustration. You aren’t intentionally trying to hurt them, so you have no reason to apologize. However, do show empathy, by saying something like, “I understand why you are upset, and I wish we had different options right now.”
  • Figure out a way to say “yes.” People — from teeny-tiny babies to full-grown adults — hate to be told they can’t do something. Ease the blow of a “no” by finding an alternative you can allow. Try: “I can’t give you the week of July 4 off, but you could take the week of July 14 off.”
  • Leave the request on the table, if possible. Let employees know that you can revisit their requests or ideas down the road when conditions improve. You could respond with, “I want to park this idea until after we launch the website,” or “Exceed your fourth-quarter quota by at least 10 percent and I will reconsider your promotion request.”
  • Show your gratitude. Employees want to have a purpose at work, and they crave recognition from you. For many people, those things matter much more than money or benefits. You can motivate employees, keep them engaged in their work, and build their loyalty simply by telling them regularly how their efforts contribute to the success of the business.
Jaimy Ford

Jaimy Ford is a business writer and editor. She writes subscription newsletters, training tools and blogs that focus on professional development, leadership, productivity and more. Her goal in everything she writes is to provide actionable advice that you can put to use immediately.

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