How to Say 'No' Without Damaging Morale


Is there a way to turn a student down, but not reduce their motivation to keep trying?

Let me ask you a question. How do you suppose you’d feel if you offered several suggestions to your supervisor, only to have every one of them rejected?

It’s a rhetorical question. We all know it doesn’t feel good.

So — how do we lead our teams, and even more so, our students, to remain motivated even when some of their ideas are … well … somewhat useless?

Students today have grown up in a world where adults (especially parents) have empowered them to feel special and smart. In fact, we gave them a trophy for it. Too often, however, when we lead them, we’re the first person to be honest with them. Their ideas may not be that amazing. Sadly, however, when we reject them, many start interpreting their opinions as not being valued or wanted—and eventually they stop offering them.

Morale can drop, passion can wane and soon they can stop trying.

How to Say “No” But Not Say “Quit”

This scenario happens in school classrooms, on athletic fields or courts, in workplaces and at home. We, as adults, must learn to balance the encouragement of ideas with reality. Is there a way to turn them down, but not reduce their motivation to keep trying? Although it’s not possible to welcome all ideas from our team, I’ve learned some tips on how to say “no” without lowering their morale.

1. Let your door communicate when you’re open for ideas.

For decades, college professors kept “office hours.” During those hours, they’d often keep their door open. It was a visual aid that said: “It’s OK to come in and talk.” If the door was shut, students knew someone else was already there. This way they can see that you’re listening to people. Like the door, their mind stays open.

2. Offer an explanation.

You are busy, and when team members or students offer an unhelpful or even bad idea, a simple “no” can be misinterpreted. When possible, explain what their idea lacks to reach the goal. Perhaps they can improve it. People always fair better when they understand the “why” behind your decisions. They realize you’re not merely blowing them off.

3. Ask for an alternate idea.

This will go a long way. If you reject their current idea, but ask them to bring a different one that meets important criteria, you communicate you value them and their thoughts. By giving them tracks or boundaries to follow, then asking them to try again, you motivate rather than de-motivate them.

4. Say “yes” to part of their suggestion.

Finally, what if you considered accepting their idea in part. Can you see how a portion of their solution might work? Especially, if you’ve said “no” several times, hearing at least a partial “yes” can go a long way. You don’t need to die on every hill and perhaps you can throw them a bone by accepting some of what they’ve said.

You Can Use All Four Ideas

A few years ago, I had a student intern who was constantly poking his head in my office and offering suggestions. Part of me loved his creativity, but I’ve since learned he felt he had to prove himself by inserting his thoughts in every meeting. He wasn’t a bad young team member, it’s just that some of his ideas were useless. At the same time, I knew that he was a bit fragile emotionally. I was in a quandary.

So, what did I do?

I ended up using all four of these ideas above. When my door was open, he entered with an idea. I paused and took the time to thank him for his effort, but explained what the idea lacked to help us make progress on a project. Then, I asked him to try again and come back with some improved solutions. You would have thought I just gave him an award. Then, just to prove I valued him, I said, “But I like part of your idea and think I may just apply that part right now — and I look forward to seeing how you tweak the rest of it. This may just help us hit the target.”

I think my “no” actually made his day.

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