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Leadership development July 27, 2022

Getting to no

Arrow with yes pointing left and arrow with no pointing right
COVID-19 has changed how we work with people partially working from home and in geographically dispersed teams. Leaders must now communicate across different cultures and channels, requiring empathy and precision.

Leadership in this new world is just as much about saying yes as it is about saying no. As a leader, you say yes to empower your people and their most valuable projects. However, leadership is also about saying no, so your people can focus on what matters most.  

Saying yes is simple: your yes both affirms your relationship with a team member and their idea. Saying no is difficult, causing many leaders to sugarcoat and weaken their no. However, a weak no leaves you and your people with nothing, as your people feel both personally rejected and confused about what to do next. 

Why is it so difficult to say no? 

Saying no is difficult because we don’t want other people to feel bad. As a leader, you might say no specifically to an idea that a team member proposed, but what your team member hears is that you are saying no to them personally.  

As a leader, you probably underestimate both how often your people feel rejected by you and how much that affects them. Consider these findings from several psychological studies: study participants play simple ball-tossing games in groups of three. Two of these players are in reality confederates of the experimenter, the third player is the actual study participant: after all three players throw the ball back and forth a few times, the two confederate players throw the ball back and forth only between each other, but do not longer throw the ball to the third player and actual study participant 1 . What sounds like a simple child’s game was a very unpleasant experience for the participant who didn’t get the ball anymore: their self-esteem suffered as they felt rejected, and they became angry and sad.  

Next, researchers specifically changed the game to see whether these changes would help participants not feel bad when they don’t receive the ball anymore: participants now played a virtual computer game 2  in which two of the three players again stopped throwing a ball to them. The game is virtual, only lasts a few minutes, the participant doesn’t know the other two players and will never meet them, and the game has no consequences. Do people care when anonymous others stop throwing a virtual ball to them for a few minutes? 

People do care because the social pain of being turned down hurts the same way physical pain does. Naomi Eisenberger and colleagues 3 had participants play this game whilst being in an fMRI scanner, and they found that social and physical pain overlap in their neural pathways and processes: social pain is experienced the same way as physical pain.  

Psychologists struggled to make this effect go away, even when they created weaker and weaker versions of the game: Eisenberger et al. (2003)4 told participants in another study that they could not actually join in the game but only observe it because of a computer error, and they still reported similar results. In another study, participants were informed that the two other players were not real people, that they were played by a computer, and that the computer had been programmed to stop throwing the ball to them at some point. Even these participants had lower levels of self-esteem simply because the pre-programmed computer players had stopped throwing the virtual ball to them for a few minutes 5 . If even very weak social signals in these construed games lower people’s self-esteem, how much bigger is the impact of potential rejection by their leaders?  

Furthermore, many face-to-face office conversations have been replaced with text-based communication via email or chat. Text is very efficient as it can reach many people whenever and wherever it’s convenient for them. However, text-based communication is also dangerously ambiguous when the topic is emotionally charged (for example, when you say no to a team members’ idea). In a face-to-face conversation, your team member can hear the warmth in your voice, they see your smile, and the many other signals you send to tell them they are worthy, but your people do not hear any of that when they only read your email. Your emails sound warm and friendly only to you, but your team members hear what their rejection-sensitive brains tell them to hear. 

How can you say no? 

So, what can you do? How can you learn to say no better? One simple thing you can do is to adapt a powerful negotiation principle into your leadership style. Negotiators learn that they have to be tough on the issues, but friendly to the person if they want to stay in business and build sustainable, long-term relationships. Next time you say no to someone’s idea, use the following three steps: 

Three steps to saying no effectively: 

Say no specifically and unambiguously to the idea that you want to decline. Make sure you’re saying no to the person’s idea, not to the person who proposed it. For example, you can write, “No, unfortunately we cannot launch another product line given the current market conditions.”  

Affirm your relationship with that person and confirm that they continue to matter to you. You just said “no” to the idea, now you have to assure them that you continue to say “yes” to them as a person. For example, you could write, “Thanks for suggesting this, though. I really appreciate your innovative ideas and I’m looking forward to hearing how we can create more value as a team. Please stay in touch and let me know if you have any new ideas or suggestions.” 

Finally, and critically, you might think that you’re done now, but you're wrong: some of your people might still feel unsure and rejected. In a face-to-face conversation, you can read their facial cues, you can see the disappointment, and quickly react to affirm your relationship with them. However, you do not know how they actually feel after you send off your email. You, therefore, have to proactively invite them to let you know if anything is still unclear, or if there is anything else they want to share. For example, you could close by writing something like: “Thanks again for suggesting this. Please do let me know if there’s anything else we could talk about, or if you have any other suggestions or questions about this. I’d love to hear from you, and I’m looking forward to working with you more on this going forward.” 

As a leader, it is your job to say both yes and no to focus your people and your organization on what matters most. In the words of Steve Jobs, “focus (…) means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are.” Your ability to say no with precision and empathy is one of the most critical skills you can develop because it is one of the most frequent, high-impact activities of your day. Use these three steps to strengthen the relationships with your people and to help your organization focus on what matters most, whether you say yes or no to the next idea.  



  • 1Williams, K. D. (1997). Social ostracism. In R. Kowalski (Ed.), Aversive interpersonal behaviors (pp. 133-170). Plenum.
  • 2Williams, K. D., Cheung, C. K., & Choi, W. (2000). Cyberostracism: Effects of being ignored over the Internet. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 748-762.
  • 3Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
  • 4Eisenberger, N. I., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302(5643), 290-292.
  • 5Zadro, L., Williams, K. D., & Richardson, R. (2004). How low can you go? Ostracism by a computer is sufficient to lower self-reported levels of belonging, control, self-esteem, and meaningful existence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(4), 560-567.

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