Executive Talent Search & Digital Marketing for Mission-Driven Organizations | The Art of Saying No
Saying No

The Art of Saying No

As a leadership coach, one of the most common things I hear clients say is “I don’t know how to say no.” People often go to leaders looking for answers – which comes with a great responsibility of sometimes having to say “no.” The pressure leaders feel to say yes might occur for many reasons. It could be because of fear, a lack of boundaries, a culture, or a natural tendency.


Successful leaders say no


            Warren Buffet once said that “the difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” If it were as easy as saying “no” many more of us wouldn’t overthink the implications that our decision of saying “no” could have or what saying “yes” could open the door to. 


When working with leaders I often hear worries about the consequences of saying “no.” Will people perceive them as unreliable? What culture will it create on their team? What will their peers think? Not knowing how to say “no” in a way that feels authentic to leaders without worrying about the potential repercussions is something that takes practice – even though the most successful leaders might be the ones that never actually say yes.


The theory behind “yes”


The theory behind saying “yes” is that as humans we seek opportunities to push ourselves outside our comfort zone and while that might be an upside in some circumstances it shouldn’t become our default. So, while the fears of saying “no” might be our instinct there are downsides to saying “yes” that also lead leaders to feelings of burnout or overextending themselves. Some of the repercussions of always saying “yes” are:


  • A lack of focus across the organization 
  • An inability to dedicate time 
  • Overextending attention 
  • A culture without boundaries 


Just like any other habit saying “no” takes repetition in order to feel confident, but it also has to feel authentic and right for you.


5 tips for exploring the right balance of saying “no”

  1. How does this opportunity align to the longer-term vision?


Ask questions and become curious. By learning more about the ask you can better understand how it aligns to both your longer-term vision and goals, but also the longer- term goals of your organization. Your team might start to better understand that the longer-term vision has a strategy and while the strategy is evolving it is up to you as a leader to steer the bigger picture thinking. 

  1. What is the focus or prioritization of the ask? 


As a leader you are most likely used to balancing various priorities and having to make decisions based on shorter- and longer-term priorities. What would it look like if you had the ability to assess the prioritization of the ask based on your other priorities to better understand how it fits in. As a leader, how you choose to prioritize tasks might be mimicked throughout your team – the types of tasks you choose to prioritize might be the tasks your team also focuses on, ultimately affecting the culture.


  1. How might you be able to help or support without taking on the full ask?


Perhaps given your bandwidth and capacity there isn’t an opportunity for you to take on the ask or become fully involved, but what would it look like for you to spend 30-60 minutes with your team member to help them brainstorm or find the right next steps or resources for them. This might unlock a feeling of support and collaboration for your team having longer term impacts on your willingness to lean in. 


  1. How might saying “no” display focus and boundaries? 


Setting a boundary and letting your team know that you are at capacity might signal to members of your team that it is also okay for them to do the same. By using boundaries, you help mitigate burnout across your team by making it the “norm” to say that prioritizing resources is acceptable. This helps create an organization of psychological safety and vulnerability.


  1. How does this ask align to your values? 


As leaders but more importantly as humans when we make decisions that align to our values we tend to act more authentically and showcase a level of dedication that feels right for ourselves. Saying “no” because an ask is not aligned to your values not only opens the door for your teams to do so but it also opens the door to earn respect and commitment. As a leader, sharing space for your values can serve as a compass towards a larger vision and helps create a sense of motivation and empowerment.




Saying “yes” to everything might seem like the easier or smarter choice at the moment but without evaluating the ask and asking yourself “what might this cost me”, the longer-term implications could become harder to reverse. Finding the right balance of saying “no” not only unlocks personal benefits but has the potential to shift the way your team and culture operates given the example you set. 


The next time you are faced with an opportunity to say “no” consider taking time to understand what really matters and how it might shape you as a leader.


About The Author


Kara is a guest writer with Maneva Group. She has her master’s in organizational psychology and is a leadership coach with over 10 years of expertise in relationship management and a genuine passion for empowering individuals. Kara’s empathetic coaching style has been described as compassionate and calming with an ability to connect with others. Kara works with leaders who might be transitioning into a new role, looking to quiet their inner critic, or overcome imposter syndrome. Her coaching services are tailored to meet each client’s unique needs and create a foundation for effortlessly communicating and tackling complex problems while fostering a sense of trust and understanding.

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