Why It’s So Hard for Women to Say ‘No’ at Work

Generic women at work, 6 February 2006. AFR Picture by MICHELE MOSSOP
(AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND OUT) Generic women at work, 6 February 2006. AFR Picture by MICHELE MOSSOP (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
Photograph by Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: At work, what’s the right way to say no? is written by Linda Celestino, vice president of guest services at Etihad Airways.

Saying, “no” can be quite challenging, but every leader or business owner must possess the capability to say “no” and recognize that timing is critical. Whether you are saying no to a team member, a superior or a customer, recognizing the value in the interaction and taking the time to explain why in an honest and gentle way ensures the relationship remains strong and helps you retain control of your priorities.

I personally take a quick self-sense check – is this an outright “no” or is it a “not right now”?

If the situation calls for an outright “no,” I have learned over the years it is absolutely possible to learn to say no in a way that builds relationship and encourages further dialogue, leaving the listener feeling appreciated and inspired. In a customer scenario, I quickly shift my focus to what I CAN do.

If the situation is in fact a “not right now,” staying positive and interested is key to ensuring the message lands well and keeps the door open to revisit the proposal at a later, more appropriate or business-conducive time. I believe smart leadership enables the two differing scenarios to be identified early on, creating the space to have engaging and open discussions with your team and an environment where hearing the word “no” doesn’t leave the team member feeling crushed and demotivated.

Many female leaders face mixed messages on a daily basis. Say “yes,” but toughen up. Say “no,” but be sensitive. Be powerful enough to be heard, but likeable enough to be followed. Leadership is not gender-specific in my view, but feminine qualities like communication and a sense of inclusiveness combined with assertiveness can engage people. In reality, these are universal characteristics of any strong leader.

Female leaders’ ability to soften the blow of a “no” with thoughtfulness or a commitment to the relationship moving forward does not mean women are any less effective as leaders. The irony remains, however. Women in leadership roles who say no tend to be perceived as cold or ruthless, while men are referred to as strong and capable.

Nonetheless, if you are in the position to say “no,” have the business wisdom, the professional sensitivity and the personal creativity to get it right. The first time.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion