The ability to say ‘no’ to requests that sidetrack us from our main objectives is at the core of effective leadership, so why do many of us find it difficult to do? Because… no matter where we sit on the corporate ladder, it’s easy to cave in to ‘power’.

Sometimes the perceived power is legitimate – saying ‘yes’ to the board chair who makes a last-minute request for a complex report even though you know your staff is already stretched to the max, or agreeing to an unprofitable demand made by your biggest customer, or corporate sponsor.

In other cases, it’s simply the power of our ‘need to please’. Whether we’re consenting to take something on that adds unnecessary workload to us personally or to others, there’s no doubt that our ‘yes’ is putting a handbrake on the health of the business.

Simply put, when we overcommit, we overwhelm. Energies are drained, productivity is reduced, quality drops and morale plunges. Staff members feel unprotected and unsupported leading to anger, resentment and frustration.

The ability to state a considered ‘no’ can become a buzz of courage and personal empowerment, if we’re willing to undergo a mental reset and remind ourselves of some of the basic rules of decision-making:

  1. Preset boundaries

    Work is a whirlwind and, in the fray, it’s easy to lose track of what really matters – that crisp sense of direction towards desired end results and the core values to which to anchor ourselves along the way.

    Create a fresh set of criteria for the coming quarter against which to measure what demands on your time, staff and resources will be beneficial versus detrimental – that will drive you towards or away from your main objectives.

  2. Be curious

    Each demand deserves our contemplation.

    Take time to ask questions with a focus on the other party’s ‘why’. Gain empathetic insight into their reasons, requirements and motivation. You’ll need to incorporate some of this information when you craft your response, whether a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.

  3. Reflect

    Don’t jump to decide in the heat of the moment.

    Rise above any time pressure or ‘power’ concerns. Stay open enough to consider the request, and weigh and balance it against your decision-making criteria for best use of time and money. Will a ‘yes’ create a win–win and… keep your staff alive and well?

  4. Craft your response

    Formulate your message to ensure relationship-friendly reception. Try using the three-point template below and include details from your conversation with the other party that demonstrate you’ve heard them and fully understand what’s driving their request.

    1. Your understanding of their request and their ‘why’
    2. Your considered response (yes, no, or a suggested in between)
    3. Your ‘why’
  5. Protect your staff

    Above all, from a morale perspective, ensure that your team knows that you will only ‘stretch the love’ when there is a very good reason – share your context for the ‘why’ of their efforts so that they understand the importance of their contribution.

    On the other hand, acting to shield your team by refusing unwarranted requests will bring deep breaths, smiles and many points to your ‘respected leader’ bank account.