How successful leaders handle a “no”


Successful leadership is often about getting stuff done. Which means convincing, requesting, delegating, directing and mentoring people to take on work that you need to get done. As the saying goes, good leaders make people want to work for them.

And one of the traits of such leaders is the finesse with which they handle a “No”.

Some leaders start taking it for granted that, when they ask someone to do something, the other person will obey. Infact, research suggests that of all the people who struggle to say no, 78% claim they find it most difficult to refuse their boss’s request, even if the request makes excessive demands on their time, energy or work-life balance.

There is enough literature available on the internet and books on how to learn to say no. But rarely do organisations work on teaching their leaders to handle a no.

Why is it so difficult for most people to hear someone say “no”?

When people hear a no it may trigger certain beliefs and feelings which are often based on past experiences rather than the present situation. We all have an intrinsic need to be accepted. Hearing a “no”  can mean that we are not and this can trigger our deepest insecurities.

Feeling of rejection:   A leader may operate from the premise that they should be unconditionally accepted and find it difficult to fathom that someone would reject their command, request or order. This can also be coming from self-doubts of not being good enough to be accepted.

Feeling of disrespect: A feeling of rejection can also make people feel disrespected. The belief that plays up here is that if you respect me you will accept what I say.

Feeling of betrayal: When you are especially counting on someone to do something and they say no people can feel betrayed or let down.

Any or all of the above feeling can make people come up with different conclusions like

  • I’m not assertive enough to get the person to listen to me
  • The other person is good for nothing  and is a lazy worker who is constantly looking for a way out
  • The other person is not serious about their career

What do you tell yourself when someone in your team says no to you?


What successful leaders do instead

  • Keep it objective: Successful leaders treat a no as a no –nothing more and nothing less. They are able to separate the person from the task requested. They are also able to differentiate when the person saying no has a genuine problem or there is a “motivational” aspect to the “no”.
  • Keep the focus away from themselves: Successful leaders also understand that the “no” is not about them but about the person who is saying no. They understand that the person is saying no to the task and not to them. In this way, they avoid treating the “no” as an attack on their own ego.
  • Focus on the other person’s needs: They understand that the other person may have other priorities, interests or needs at the moment and needs to say no. The other person may also have challenges in executing the task or may just be uncomfortable with it.
  • Provide the support needed: They use the no as an opportunity to check if the person needs their support with something and offer to understand and help if needed. This helps them build their relationship with their employee who now knows that they matter to their leader.
  • Avoid pushing the power equation: Successful leaders avoid using power and authority to get stuff done: They understand that their position of authority may create discomfort for the person saying no and avoid using that as a leverage. Instead, they use the “no” to build a bridge of understanding by convincing, negotiating and supporting the person.
  • Respect the other person: Successful leaders start with respect which includes respecting the other person’s decision. This does not mean the same thing as accepting the other person’s opinion.
  • Explore alternatives: Once they have ensured their employee is okay successful leaders move their focus on getting the work done by looking at alternatives. It is about fixing the problem and not the person for them.


Most importantly, successful leaders understand that how they handle a no says a lot more about them rather than about the person saying no.






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