Before you say no for leaders

Learn how all employee requests or behaviours are attempts at meeting a need. Learn how to ask "why" before you say "no" and get to the root of the issue.

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When we ask someone for their opinion or input and then tell them no, it may make them feel that their opinion never mattered to us anyway. But simply saying yes to every request made of us isn’t practical. There’s a way to help meet needs without saying no. It involves an understanding that all requests or behaviours are an attempt to meet a need.

Some needs are universal and include:

  • Security
  • Belonging
  • Acceptance
  • Recognition
  • Autonomy

The challenge is that each person’s satisfaction of these needs is different. One person may have a strong need for autonomy and want you to describe the outcomes you want, then be left to decide how to reach that goal. Others feel more secure with very specific step-by-step instructions on how each task should be carried out. Both are meeting needs, but in different ways. Learn more about what drives behaviour.

Try our short eLearning module which includes key concepts related to this topic. You can share this with others or use it as part of a more in-depth learning program.

An alternative to no...

Instead of simply saying no:

  • Ask why they are making this request or how it can help them do their job and; 
  • Explore alternatives to help meet the underlying need

The request:

When an individual asks for something like the corner office with windows, rather than just telling them these are reserved for those with higher status, ask them why they want the corner office.

The underlying need:

You may find they have a condition like seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and require a minimum amount of sunlight to manage it. 

The alternatives:

By not saying no first, you’re now able to find another way to help meet their underlying need such as the purchase of a small full spectrum lightbox that would have the desired effect of keeping them healthier and productive. You also may avoid them feeling like you don’t care or have dismissed their need. It is ideal if the alternatives could be found by asking the employee what else might meet the need they have shared with you. If they are unable to come up with any, you could ask for some time for both of you to explore options to meet the need (rather than meet the request).

Another example is when an individual says that they want to be transferred to another team. (The request) If that isn’t something that’s available (or even if it is) you may want to ask what they would change in their own team if they could. (The underlying need)

Getting at the underlying need, rather than reacting to the request or simply saying no, allows further exploration of possible solutions. Some of these solutions might make the team higher functioning or improve organizational culture. (The alternatives)

We often talk about the ineffectiveness of moving people from one team to another in an attempt to “solve” problems. If the problem was the individual’s own coping strategies, it’s very likely to resurface after a brief honeymoon period on the new team. If the problem was the way the team operates or interacts, it’s very likely it will show up with another individual when the first one is gone. In either case, the problem is not “solved”; it is just delayed or moved.


  1. Before you say no, ask why they are making the request or how it can help them do their job.
  2. Identify the underlying need in their response.
  3. Explore alternative solutions that meet the need without necessarily fulfilling the original request. 

Information adapted from Baynton, M. Resolving Workplace Issues. (2011), Waterdown, Ontario. Self-Published.

10-minute e-learning

Use this PDF as a reminder of the before you say no concepts. 

An accessible version is also available.

For more eLearning topics, see Microlearning modules

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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