Boundary Setting is Critical to Your Success — Get Comfortable Saying No!

Last week, we explored how to create a positive employee experience by focusing on how to engage and retain your most valuable resource – your people.

This week, we are shifting the lens back to you as a leader and we are exploring one of the most challenging aspects of rising into leadership – learning how to say no in a way that leaves you and the receiving party feeling good.   

As leaders, it is our responsibility to help prioritize, delegate, lead decisively and, hardest of all, we need to feel okay about uttering the most powerful two-letter combination in the English language: No.

Creating a team of engaged employees is crucial to your success, so it’s important to implement initiatives that keep them happy, productive, and passionate about their work. However, you also need to strike a balance by ensuring initiatives designed to make them more engaged do not create strain and unnecessary demand. Today’s workforce values a healthy work-life balance. People want to know you’re committed to them and their wellbeing.

While it’s great to offer flexibility, perks, and opportunities to improve career paths, we also want to make sure we are being considerate about work-life balance. Giving employees the ability to operate freely and creatively is certainly a step in the right direction. At the same time, you might have to stand in the way of that freedom and creativity and say “no,” which can be terrifying, especially if you are new to leadership. 

How can you strike the right balance, set effective boundaries, and learn how to say “no”?

Set Clear Expectations

One of the best ways to set and maintain effective boundaries is to provide clarity on things like job expectations, roles & responsibilities, and other items that relate to setting people up for success in their roles. All should be discussed in detail with employees to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Remember, ambiguity = less engagement.

People need to understand what you expect from them, and you also need to understand what they expect from you. When both parties are clear, it will reduce the likelihood you’ll have to say no because of lack of clarity and understanding. Leaving things up to assumptions and generalizations will make your job as their leader 10 times harder if they do not understand what is expected of them and how to go about achieving success in their role. 

Avoid the Instinct to Apologize

If you want your employees to look up to you as their leader, you may be tempted to couch every “no” response in an apology. “I’m sorry, but…”  This might not be the most ideal way for a leader to convey a message. Remember it’s not personal, so there is no need to walk on egg shells. Explain the why behind your response so they understand the rationale vs. apologizing.  

Apologizing for your response might be perceived as soft, and could weaken your authority. Don’t undermine your leadership by overusing empathy as it might diminish your leadership brand.

Offer Alternatives

If you have to say “no” to an employee, you don’t have to think of it as a stop sign or an end to the discussion. If your employee asks for something you are unable to give them, offer a compromise or alternative, if possible. You may also want to ask them for alternative ideas that align with both parties' needs. 

For example, if you cannot grant an employee time off during a particularly crucial period, work with them to determine a time that’s more conducive to their needs, and one that fits with organizational timelines and expectations. More often than not, when your “no” is followed by an alternative or a solution that may not have been considered, your employee will walk away from the conversation feeling engaged, respected, and included in the decision-making process.

Consider Asking Questions Before Saying “No”

If employees are coming to you with ideas they are eager to implement, you may feel the instinct to say “no” immediately if they do not seem conducive to the organization or team’s objectives and purpose. But instead of offering up your response right away, consider asking some questions:

  • What do you like about this idea?
  • How is this idea going to benefit the team or organization?
  • What was the trigger or situation that caused you to come up with this idea?

When you lead with questions it facilitates more productive collaboration of ideas and brainstorming that fosters creativity, engagement and inclusivity.

For example, let’s say one of your team members comes to you with a suggestion or idea that appears unorthodox at first glance. Understand there is always a nugget of learning or opportunity that comes from ideas. You just need to practice patience and self-awareness to pause and ask questions. 

If you ask why they want to implement their idea and investigate how it was generated, you will uncover some valuable information. “No” may prove to be the most appropriate response; just don’t make it your first one.

Practice Saying “No” to Yourself

The pressure to perform well doesn’t disappear when you become a leader. You are driven to succeed and there are goals you want to achieve for your career, too. Unfortunately, saying yes to everything will deteriorate your energy level, effectiveness, and may lead to burnout if done to excess. 

You have a team you can delegate to, and you have priorities to align so you can stay sharp and focused for the good of your team and company.

You don’t have to do it all. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions. Know your own limits. This begins with a healthy self-awareness practice and knowing where to draw the line on your own capacity. 

How Do You Handle Saying “No”?

Do you have a tough time saying no? Are you new to leadership and need some support? Are you a people pleaser who is sensitive about hurting people’s feelings?

I would love to hear about the challenges you're facing. I am curious about how you handle saying “no” and establishing boundaries for yourself.

We want your insights so please reach out to us.

You can email me at or call me at 1.855.871.3374. email me at I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

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