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How To Say 'No' When An Employee Tries To Take Advantage Of You

By Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ

Given all the stress and anxiety out there, many leaders are trying hard to be nicer and more accommodating. While being nice is generally a good thing, one unintended consequence is that many leaders try so hard to be nice that they end up overly accommodating and appeasing. 

There are some employees that try to exploit their leaders’ ‘niceness’ to get more time off, extend deadlines and even excuse poor performance. And it’s those situations where leaders need to improve their ability to say ‘no’ in a firm-but-nice way.

Let’s imagine we’re managing a department and the whole team is working to complete a big project by year-end. Amidst this heavy workload, one of our employees comes into to our office and says:
“I need to take two days out of the office next week for a meeting with another department so I can share my experience implementing our new software.”

Now, you could look at them in disbelief and retort “Are you out of your mind? Get out of my office!” While that would certainly deliver the message, it’s neither healthy nor a realistic option for many overly-agreeable leaders.

So here are six steps to help you say ‘no’ (in a firm-but-nice manner) when an employee tries to take advantage of you.

Step 1: Count to three

One of the first things that a manager needs to practice is pausing before they speak.

We live in a fast-moving world where social media, like Facebook and Twitter, have trained us to give fast and emotional responses. They’ve taught us that whenever we see or hear something with which we disagree, we should react emotionally and immediately (don’t sit back and ponder, click an emoji and react right this second).

But in most tough employee situations, a knee-jerk response is the exact opposite of what we want. Not only does pausing before we speak often prevent us from saying something we’ll regret, it also trains us to not automatically say ‘yes’ to everything.

When a leader has become a bit too accommodating, they agree to requests so quickly and automatically that they first have to unlearn saying ‘yes’ before they can practice saying ‘no.’

Step 2: Acknowledge the importance they attribute to their request

Being empathic is generally a good thing, and right now, according to the results of the online test “Do You Listen With Empathy?” we know that about half of people are sorely lacking in empathy. So, even if you’re pretty sure that the employee is trying to exploit your kindness, don’t be nasty. 

Instead, say something empathic like “I hear this request is important to you” or “It’s apparent this means a lot to you.”

Just because you’re going to be firm doesn’t mean you can’t still retain your niceness.

Step 3: Say NO

This is a pretty obvious step; just say the word “no.” Now, the problem becomes that many people weaken their “no” by saying “I’m sorry, no” or “Well I just don’t think so.” We want to make our “no” clear and unambiguous.

And similarly, don’t give a long-winded reason for your decision; it’s just ammunition for your employee to convince you to say yes.

In general, when you’re saying “no,” limit your reason to one sentence.

Step 4: Own your NO

Where possible, use the words "I won't" or "I've decided not to," rather than "I can't" or "I shouldn't.” This emphasizes that you have made a choice and it dissuades the employee from pursuing the issue further.

Step 5: Practice saying NO

I know this sounds a bit hokey, but it’s a good idea to practice saying “no” in front of a mirror. Far too many leaders give conflicting non-verbal signals when they’re saying “no,” like looking away, covering their mouth, or even trembling. So practice until your body language is as firm and assertive as the word “no.”

Step 6: Repeat as necessary

Especially if your employees aren’t used to hearing you say “no” a lot, you may have to say “no” several times before the employee hears you. The good news is that it’s not necessary to come up with a new explanation each time, just repeat your "no" and your original reason for declining. So, once you’ve prepared your “no,” relax. It’s incredibly tough to defeat this strategy.

Putting it all together

Taking all these steps together, when your employees says “I need to take two days out of the office next week for a meeting with another department so I can share my experience implementing our new software,” your response will sound something like:

"I hear that this meeting is very important to you, however, our team needs to get this project done by Friday and you are an integral part of the team. So I’m saying No to the meeting.”

I know that saying “no” doesn’t sound like it should be much work, and after a while it won’t be. But when you’re first getting the hang of it, be prepared to script yourself and practice. And soon enough, you’ll be firmly-but-nicely asserting yourself with any employee that tries to take advantage of you.

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