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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 26, 2019


One of the elements that gets in the way of being assertive as a leader is an inability to say 'no' to requests, or automatically saying ‘yes’ to everything that comes our way. We explore ways to say ‘no’ without being a jerk.



Hello and welcome to episode 46 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at saying ‘no’ without feeling like a jerk.

One of the elements that gets in the way of being assertive as a leader is an inability to say 'no' to requests. Or, the flip side, is automatically saying 'yes' to every request that comes our way.

True assertiveness requires us to say 'no'. If we can't say 'no' then our time and efforts become subject to others' needs rather than our own. How can we lead others effectively if we can't choose our own priorities? We also risk becoming overloaded, ending up struggling to fit everything into our work week, and neglecting some of the truly important parts of our role. 

Saying ‘yes’ often early in our career can make a lot of sense. You’re seen as someone who is keen to help out and add value. The catch is when we carry that impulse to say ‘yes’ and take more and more on into the rest of our career. 

Often times this inability to say 'no' comes down to a tension between "I don't want to do it" and "I want to help". Being helpful is a wonderful trait. But being helpful doesn't necessarily mean saying 'yes' automatically.

This is where a "no but..." response can work well. It allows us to still be helpful without automatically agreeing to the request. For example, you could still be helpful by providing advice. "No - I won't be able to do that research for you, but you might find this online resource helpful". Or you could help the person to make a new connection. For example, "No - I can't cover your shift on Saturday, but you could speak with Brett in Human Resources to see if anyone is looking for extra shifts." Or you might vary the timeframe. "No - I won't be able to finish that report today, but I could have it ready by Friday". Or you could vary the task. "No - I won't be able to attend that meeting, but I'm happy to look at your presentation and provide some feedback". Advice, connections, varying the timeframe and varying the task can help us to say ‘no’ while still being helpful.

Another really useful technique is to insert a gap between the request and your response. Just because someone makes a request of you doesn't mean you have to respond straight away. It's perfectly reasonable to let them know that you will think about it and get back to them by a particular time. But what if it's urgent? Well, just because something is urgent for someone else doesn't automatically make it urgent for you. And I'm also not suggesting it needs to be a long gap. If they're on the phone you might say you will call them back in five minutes. It just needs to be enough of a gap so that you can consider whether you have capacity and interest to do what's being asked of you. 

Clearly the context matters. My advice to a teenage son on work experience is to say 'yes' to absolutely everything they ask you to do. But the more senior your position, the more important the ability to say ‘no’ becomes. My advice to a CEO is to never say 'yes' to anything in the moment unless they’re 100% convinced it's the right call. 

So, saying 'no' while being helpful, and inserting a gap are two great approaches to increasing our assertiveness.

I’ve had the privilege to work with thousands of leaders to help them achieve results through people. I have seen many people who struggle with their confidence, with speaking up and presenting their ideas, with being more assertive without becoming aggressive, and with saying ‘no’ to unreasonable requests. In short, the majority of leaders I’ve worked with want and need to boost their assertiveness to become more effective. They recognise that assertiveness is crucial to achieving results both for themselves and their organisation. But they often don’t know where to start. That’s why I’ve developed the Boost Your Assertiveness at Work in Three Weeks program. The course is launching in early September, and those who subscribe to our email list will receive a special offer. If you haven’t already signed up, you can do that via website and follow the connect links. If you enjoyed today’s episode, I’m confident you’ll love the online course. Have a great week and I’ll speak to you next week.