8 ways to say ‘No’ to employees without damaging morale

As a supervisor, you have many opportunities to affirm the ideas and actions of your employees. In fact, a good amount of your job is coaching and cheerleading your employees on to greater achievements.

But sometimes, you need to say “no.” That can mean “no” to a raise … or a telework request … or a certain day off.

Those rejections can make you uncomfortable and create a barrier between you and a valued employee. And without careful handling, a succession of turndowns can weaken morale and diminish honest communication.

The challenge is to learn to say “no” without losing the goodwill and enthusiasm of your employees. Here are 8 ways to do that:

1. Explain why you must say “no.” By explaining the logic of your decision, you can often gain your employee’s agreement that a “yes” would be unwise. For example, when an employee asks for a bigger raise, you can explain that the only way to do so is by unfairly reducing raises for other department members.

2. Explain how the “no” might be turned into a “yes.” Explain what the employee must do to help make a “yes” answer possible. Depending on the request, the conditions for a “yes” might be improved job performance, completion of special training or success in reaching specific goals. Once your employee understands the relationship between your standards and a “yes”, she can adjust her effort.

3. Let your employee know when a “no” can be reconsidered. Often, you can’t say “yes” simply because of timing issues (budgetary restraints, work schedules or pressing deadlines). In such cases, don’t promise a “yes” in the future, but do let the employee know when you’ll be able to take up the matter again. And when that time comes, be sure to follow up.

4. Say “no” in the right place at the right time. That can influence the way your decision is received. If an employee has a personal stake in an issue, you’re better off discussing the matter in private—not in a staff meeting or in front of co-workers.

5. Say “no” at the same time you say “yes.” Perhaps you’re considering several ideas and requests at the same time. If you must turn down an employee’s request for a new computer, for example, perhaps you can soften the blow by giving her permission to attend the special training program she had asked about.

6. Group unpopular “no’s” together. Every so often, you might have to make a series of unpopular decisions. Don’t bring those decisions out day-by-day or week-by-week. Try to announce those decisions at once—and get the unpleasantness over with. Dragging out the negatives is no good for morale.

7. Don’t blame the “no” on others. If you didn’t make the decision but still have to deliver the news, don’t blame the decision on upper management or on forces outside your control. By taking responsibility for the unpopular decisions, you’ll enhance your own stature and authority in the eyes of your employees.

8. Say “no” to the idea, not the person. There’s no better time to recognize the value of new ideas than when one is presented. Even when you must say “no” to an employee’s suggestion or idea, don’t hesitate to praise the person’s creativity and initiative—and encourage him to keep trying.

Harness the power of ‘yes’

A healthy, productive workplace should be brimming with new ideas. Be willing to say “yes” to as many as you can. Remember: You don’t have to be 100% committed to an employee’s idea to give her permission to run with it. In fact, your willingness to endorse an idea you’re not fully comfortable with may do more to enhance an employee’s performance than you ever thought possible.

Bonus: If you get in the habit of looking for opportunities to say “yes,” your employees will have a much easier time accepting your decision when you have to say “no.”