How to say 'no' - in the nicest way
Published in The New Zealand Herald, 22 May 2010.
Managing staff in lean economic times is likely to mean supervisors tell staff "no" far more often than "yes" says Rebecca Holden, human resources consultant with Pohlen Kean.
Whether it's declining a pay rise, refusing a promotion or passing over a job candidate, rejection management needs to be handled carefully.
"People find it a lot easier to say `yes' than `no'. It's an issue that we see in terms of management capability that people need help with."
The non-confrontational, egalitarian and matey culture of New Zealand can make it harder for managers to lay down the law and deliver bad news. Companies should empower their managers with the skills, training and knowledge to communicate negative messages.
"First of all managers need to understand what they are within their rights to do. You almost need to give them permission to say `no' and then give them the skills so that they can do it."
Managers should keep the communication on their terms so they are not caught off-guard. If an employee catches a manager in the hallway and wants to know if their career development proposal was accepted, the manager should not feel compelled to give an answer there and then. The manager can simply make a time to discuss it when they are prepared and comfortable with what they want to say. This is particularly true with new managers.
"With new managers, they need to do a lot of preparation to say `no'," says Holden. "Then they become more comfortable with it and they can do it as a matter of course.
Some managers may need role-model training in effective communication, others just instinctively know how to manage people.
"Some need skills training like short courses or workshops where they get to practice the skills in a safe environment."
Some managers have been trained to deliver negative news nestled in between two pieces of positive encouragement - good/bad/good. But Holden says she is not a fan of the "feedback sandwich".
"You want a person to take notice of the `no' but leave in a positive frame of mind. I'm more a fan of `give them the news straight up' and then let them see a way forward."
One tool in saying "no" is to turn the situation back around on the employee and ask for justification for their pay rise, time off or training course, she says.
"Make it difficult for me to say `no' because your reasons for wanting to do it are so compelling."
Sometimes this can make it quite easy to turn down a request when you discover the employee was only asking for the extra time off because they heard another employee had received it. Perhaps the other employee had done something to achieve it and this one had not. Employees may take notice a certain manager has a hard time saying "no" so they just try it on.
Another tool is a bait and switch approach. Say"no" to one request, but then offer up something else in its place: "No, I can't give you funding for a training course but what I can do is make sure that this expert I know in the business spends some time with you to increase your knowledge."
Holden says that in the tough economic climate companies are looking at low- or no-cost incentives. Give employees more of your time if that's what they want. It may be low-cost upgrade on their technology or an assignment to a special project. Employees might value more career planning or mentoring within the organisation. Perhaps reward an employee by letting them tag along with you to a meeting with more senior managers. Employees aren't expecting to hear "yes" all the time in this economy but it helps to explain the why behind the no.
"To me it's a last resort just to say `no'. If you are saying `no' then give your reasons why. Most people understand that."
Managers who are prepared to answer the question, "Why?" will feel much more confident when it comes time to deliver the bad news.
"That's when it's hard is when it appears and it feels unfair and you don't understand why it's a `no'. In so many management situations, if I hear a `no' and there's an explanation it's far easier for me to take it onboard."
It's also easier for job applicants to accept a 'no' answer when a definitive response is given. Holden says even though a single employment ad can generate hundreds of applications, it's good practice to respond to every one.
"I think candidates deserve a certain standard of care from a recruitment agency or a company. They are far more likely to come back to you if they feel as though they have been treated well."
Employers may not like delivering bad news but it comes with the territory if you're going to manage people. Candidates want a definitive answer to their application even if it is a flat out "No thank you".
"Often you may put an application in for a company and never hear anything. If you hear nothing you assume you've been unsuccessful and that can be quite damaging sometimes for a brand or a company."
With medium to larger size organisations, it's better to tell a candidate that they won't be making the short list for the current job listing but might be suited to something later down the road. This will leave a more positive impression than being afraid to give a negative response and just say nothing. In effect, saying "no" in this instance protects the company image.
"If you do say no to someone about something, you need to do it in a way that doesn't damage your brand because people remember."
Rejecting job applicants with a professionally worded letter through the post or even email is a lot better than leaving them hanging.
Companies should have standard procedures such as rejection letters in place as part of their rejection management policies.
"People understand that not everybody that applies is going to get the job, but how you are treated through the process is the feeling that you take away with you."