Why It’s Time to Start Saying ‘No’

April 10, 2016, 3:00 PM UTC
Colleagues having informal meeting in cafe, cropped
Photograph by Odilon Dimier — PhotoAlto via Getty Images

The Fortune 500 Insiders Network is an online community where top executives from the Fortune 500 share ideas and offer leadership advice with Fortune’s global audience. David Travers, COO of Farmers Insurance, has answered the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no?

Throughout my career, I’ve gathered a number of personal perspectives on saying—and hearing—”no.” While some ways of expressing “no” are more effective than others, it’s really up to you to decide what works best for your situation. What really matters is that you listen and take action when your inner voice does say no. It’s what you take from the experience and how you conduct yourself that can help you manage your everyday work, shape the progression of your career, and find the right opportunities. Here is why saying no can be the right answer:

No” isn’t necessarily negative
The word “no” definitely carries a negative connotation, and as most of us learned at a very early age, some serious consequences. But, temper tantrums aside, it doesn’t have to be that way. Saying no isn’t a negative action when you do it for the right reasons.

When I ask team members to do something, I’m not always familiar with their day-to-day workload. If they can’t do a task I’ve asked of them, I expect them to say no. I don’t view this as problematic—to me it’s a positive. The worst thing someone can do is not say no, then end up doing the task partially, turning it in late, or not doing it well.

Sure, hearing no can sometimes be a slight sting, but people who know their limits and where their contributions make the biggest impact—and who have their priorities in order—are often the most respected.

See also: Fortune 500 CMO: The Best Way to Say No

How to say no
The moment you’re tempted to say no, pause and explore the possibilities, consequences, and opportunities that could result. If you determine that it is something you should say, be sure to say it in a straightforward way. It won’t always be easy, as “no” is a discipline that takes confidence and practice. But it’s ultimately a tool that you can use to better manage your workday and your activities.

It’s complex
Where saying no gets more complicated is when something in front of you is more complex and you have a lot at stake, like being asked to move to another city or taking on a job assignment that’s outside of your comfort zone. It may also involve things you are uncertain about or how the company will perceive your decision. These situations require you to know yourself and make decisions based on your values and priorities, like your family or volunteer groups.

I value people who figure out what they want to do, what they really like, and are very clear about it. These folks tend to be much more productive and happier over the long haul than people who aspire to a certain level and then, when they get there, discover it’s not what they thought it would be. They’re often unhappy and feel trapped.

For professionals facing these types of decisions, sometimes saying no is not only okay—it’s the action that leads to unexpected opportunities. And getting to the point of saying “no” might even help you discover the assignments you’re truly passionate about.


Take your time
If you’re feeling rushed to make an important decision, start by saying, “Tell me more,” and ask a lot of exploratory questions. This tactic will help you manage the pace of a big decision because the sense of urgency you feel in the moment may not be real. You need time to weigh your options and decide if “no” is the right answer for you. Carefully consider all issues, make an informed decision, and if the answer turns out to be no, have confidence in yourself and the outcome.

“No” is a learning opportunity
If you say no to someone’s request or project, that’s an opportunity to coach. Think of it as giving your employees feedback that will help take their performance to the next level. Start with understanding how they will feel about hearing no, then walk them through the business decision and why what they’ve proposed just isn’t right. Believe it or not, the “no” conversation can be a powerful way for you to build relationships and develop people. Use it to affirm, redirect, and build character. Overall, your job is about helping the organization to do its best work, and you’ll be most effective if you’ve created a culture where “no” facilitates learning.

And if you’re the one frequently hearing no, seek feedback and understand why. Examine if there’s anything on your side of the equation that needs attention, and learn what you can do differently to change the outcome.

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