Why and How to say ‘no’, whilst building cohesive teams
A guide for leaders and team members
In the context of striving to succeed the dominant narrative is to impress others, be available, network, be helpful and to not let others down. This feels most true for those who lead their own businesses (the face of their businesses), those who are emerging or aspiring leaders and those who want to work in cohesive teams.
When I explore the problem of demand and capacity with clients, which is a common issue raised, I start with an exploration of the commitments that they have made to themselves. This is process is written about in more detail here.
From here, we can start to look at the agreements that have been made in their current role to explore where their activity is serving them best and where agreements have filled the diary with work that serves others at a personal/organisational cost.
On face value, agreeing to support the work of others seems like a sensible thing to do to create networks, positive impressions, business leads and/or a cohesive team environment. However, you all know that this can also lead to huge pressure and demand to deliver for others that can impact heavily on your ability to be available to meet your own commitments and the agreements that truly matter.
When this audit of agreements reveals issues — like saying yes too often — inevitably, many clients respond with, “I don’t seem to be able to say no”.
The art of saying ‘no’
The art of saying no is more than just a social barrier, it is potentially destructive to morale, productivity and personal development. I would go so far as to say that an inability to say no is a red flag in a team, requiring support.
A leader who cannot say no is not really capable of leading to success. In truth, most learn this on their journey upwards — as the ability to focus on their commitments enables them to perform and achieve promotions.
Many leadership spotting metrics tease out focus and an ability to deliver on task as valued traits.
Of course, not all leaders emerge in this way — and many are either ambitious to rise or leading as a consequence of building a business and sitting at the top. For these leaders, learning the art of ‘no’ is imperative.
For the keen team member, an inability to say no can dilute their key role to a more generic role that is driven by agreements rather than a passionate commitment to take the team goal forwards. Agreements with other team members to aid their commitments will water down of their own role, which was likely key to the organisation at some point. In this context, cohesion and team effectiveness requires intelligent delegation and teaming but not heroes in capes. Most team members prefer to be supported towards enablement and rescuing reduces self-enablement of teams over time, so should be avoided.
3 steps to saying ‘No’
Firstly, you have to really understand where your commitments and key skills fit in the organisation. This is a personal alignment task. What do you bring and how are you emotionally engaged, in respect to what you want and how that aligns with your organisation’s mission. If there is no alignment, I’d suggest this needs work or you need a new host organisation. But let’s assume there is alignment…
Once your reasons for being in this team and role are clear to you, reference this emotional and rational position when asked to do something or feel compelled to rescue a team member. Ask yourself why this task needs you, how it serves your role, how it serves your commitment to yourself (and the organisation) and whether you want to do it. The last question usually reveals the truth, if you are aligned with your role and organisation.
If there is discord, simply address the situation with empathy and decline:
I can see that you are struggling, but I have confidence in you to try and will provide you whatever time you need to give it a go.
This is a great opportunity for you to give it a go, as a self-development piece.
I’d really like to help and can see that you would benefit, but I really have to focus on my current tasks at present and so I have to say no. Sorry.
At present, I am too busy, but I could chat about how you are approaching this over a coffee if you’d like?
I’m sorry to see that you are stressed, I really wish I could help. I share your experience of stress at the moment with my own tasks and so need to deal with my own work first.
There are many ways you can decline — most of which don’t need the word ‘no’ to actually be stated. Rather, validating the request as being heard, connecting with the need and offering encouragement and/or a reason for your decline. People don’t like rejection, but they do like to be heard and to experience compassion. It is the human connection and empathy that creates cohesion — not the requirement to say yes. This is more authentic and doesn’t fracture teams, which is a genuine risk of repeated reluctant ‘yes’ responses.
The ingredients to saying no are simple:
Have clear commitments
Check how you feel when asked to help or feeling the need to rescue Check if this agreement aligns with your commitments
If there are any wobbles — show empathy, compassion, encouragement and decline.
Like all things, this takes practice.
It gets easier.
Just remember — the word yes is not banned, you can help sometimes — when helping is the right thing to do!
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