How Leaders Can Keep a Team Engaged After Telling Them “No”

How do you keep people engaged after telling them “no”?

That’s often a question with which leaders wrestle, knowing that saying “no” can be demoralizing, and even push employees to start looking for another position if it happens too often.

But leadership and engagement experts say that it’s critical that managers learn to handle such an issue. Without a solution, they may find that a team becomes uninterested in coming up with creative, innovative or workable solutions that are critical to business survival in today’s competitive environment.

“I do believe that within every ‘no’ is a portal to another ‘yes,’” says Rosa Say, a workplace culture coach and founder of Say Leadership Coaching. “We can think of that ‘no’ as ‘not now, maybe later’ and that ‘yes’ possibility as our next step instead, while our original thought gains more traction should it still prove itself useful, relevant or necessary later on.”

Phil Gerbyshak, CEO at Social Media Coach, says that the easiest way to keep a team engaged after turning them down on a project or idea is to “continue to add value to their lives.”

For example, you may be able to make a meaningful connection for them, share a good resource or ask if there “are other things you can do to help them,” he says. “As long as ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘never.’ That’s how I keep people engaged after telling them ‘no.’”

David Zinger, founder and host of Global Employee Engagement Network and president of David Zinger Associates, says that he believes “it is less about keeping people engaged and more about inviting engagement.”

“I would hope the employee was invited into the ‘no’ by being in the know. The ‘no’ is less about the content and more about the intent,” he says. “Is the ‘no’ final and fatal – or temporary feedback about a current state that can change? Do we help employees develop growth rather than fixed mindsets so that the ‘no’ is experienced as a step of growth rather than a pit of failure?”

Zinger explains that if an employee is not given a promotion, for example, then “hopefully there is an explanation combined with an invitation to what the employee can do in their future to achieve the ‘yes’ they are looking for. “

Part of the problem with employee engagement is that managers often find themselves saying ‘no’ to ideas because they aren’t directly related to a company’s strategy or culture. For example, a recent Accenture study finds that 85% of managers say that their workers’ ideas are targeting internal improvements instead of external improvements. But employees may not know that they’re on the wrong track if managers aren’t clearly giving them parameters about where they need to direct their energies.

That lack of communication may be behind only 20% of employees in the survey believing their employer offers support to develop ideas.

Say says great managers are “effective shepherds,” who recognize when people get stuck and they need to move on.

“In a word, it’s redirection. The skill in it is keeping that light of positive expectancy turned on when the ‘no’ threatens to substantially darken the mood,” she says. “Managers must remember that motivation is essentially an inside job: They can’t really motivate anyone to do something they aren’t inclined to do.”

Managers, she explains, need to redirect “where we help the person we had to say that ‘no’ to be the finder of their own next ‘yes’ instead of telling them what we think it is. It requires patience, and a lot more conversation than we normally might devote to it, yet another instance why good managing matters.”






Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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