How Saying ‘No’ Can Actually Motivate Your Team

June 3, 2016, 1:00 AM UTC
Businesswoman leading meeting in conference room
Photograph by Hero Images via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no? is written by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

There are many reasons for saying no in business—lack of resources, disagreements on priorities or strategy, perhaps a misalignment on the team. But as a leader, you must recognize that those standing in front of you have stepped up to make an ask. Having your teams come to you and ask for something that they believe in can often be a positive for the organization, even if the answer to the specific request is “no.” Here’s how to handle those instances:

  1. Give it business context

Leaders make tough decisions every day. Some are big, some not so big. If you need to say no to someone’s ask, take a step back and provide your rationale in the context of the company’s goals and priorities, as well as the market context. In this regard, sometimes saying no can serve as an opportunity to refocus the team or reprioritize deliverables and next steps. Leverage each discussion as an opportunity to strengthen the vision of where the whole team is going and how you have to work together to get there.

See also: Proof It’s Okay to Say ‘No’ at Work

  1. Have an open dialogue

I’ve seen leaders work with their teams in a transactional way: Make the decision, tell the team, check the box, and move on. Good leaders make their teams a part of the discussion, especially when they have to say no. Don’t give a simple response, but provide the rationale for why this request doesn’t fit into the business’s priorities right now. Keep the dialogue going and revisit the request when the timing is right, or work together to find another solution that still meets the needs of the team.


  1. Find a way to fulfill the person’s ask in another way

Use this touch point as a means to better understand this individual or team and how you can further stimulate them. Perhaps we can’t say yes to this specific request, but if we understand the deeper meaning or rationale for stepping up and making an ask, than we can find a way to drive them in another way. Perhaps this passion project didn’t work out, but there might be something similar that’s better connected to the company’s goals and road forward that we can embark on together.

Saying no can either be demotivating, or it can be a way to connect the person and bring that individual closer to helping to drive priorities. As a leader, it is important to take the time to listen and be empathetic. It can be hard to say no, but finding a way to reach goals together is one measure of true leadership.