A ‘Positive No’

Knowing when to say no is among the most underutilized leadership skills, yet essential to success and well-being.

By Michelle Smith, SWE Editorial Board

High performers are coveted for the qualities they bring to their teams, companies, and academic institutions. As an individual meets and exceeds what has been put on their plate, it is often rewarded with even more assignments, albeit challenging ones. The drive for these individuals to demonstrate productivity, be novel, and raise the bar all at the same time is ongoing. So, what’s the best way to ensure a healthy work/life balance remains intact and worker warrior fatigue is kept at bay?

“No.” It’s a simple, two-letter word that is learned in early infancy, but it can be one of the most distressing to master as an adult. The ability to adopt it in regular practice is an underutilized leadership skill.

“A considered no protects you. The right yes allows you to serve others, make a difference, collaborate successfully, and increase your influence. You want to gain a reputation for saying no at the right times for the right reasons and make every single yes really count.”¹

If a “no” is a genuine game changer, then why can it be so difficult to voice? William Ury, author of The Power of a Positive No, discusses the importance of combining relationship and power to ultimately create a “positive no.” In his perspective, if this mixture is unbalanced, communication can take the face of unwanted accommodation, attacking out of anger, and avoidance from fear or awkwardness. All three behaviors erode personal boundaries and self-care.

It’s essential to practice emotional honesty and let go of what others want you to be. Trouble often arises when decisions are made by reacting to an environment instead of choosing something based on personal values. By taking time to reflect on your personal needs and beliefs, decisions can be made from a true authentic and unapologetic self. A “positive no,” when expressed over time, will be free of guilt, overcommitments will begin to diminish, and trust can flourish in different relationships and networks where it may have been destroyed previously.

While upholding personal convictions, it’s also important to recognize how cultural norms vary in global regions. There may be differences in how conflict is handled or avoided, how respective types of decision-making are accomplished, and how work team dynamics are configured.

It takes confidence to embrace authenticity and pay attention to personal dreams. Time is incredibly limited, and it’s essential to protect what’s important to each of us. Learning how to deliver a “positive no” with courage creates the space for a valuable “yes” — yes, to reconnecting with joy, yes to working on a journey you value, and yes to an incredible sense of purpose to propel you within any level of an organization.

Successful Strategies in Practicing the Articulation of a “Positive No”:

  • Share your need and have a strong “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” also known as a BATNA, to affirm your “no.”
  • Express appreciation and respect before delivering the “no.”
  • Practice compassion by helping the requestor with an alternative solution or resource.

1. Tulgan, B. (2020). “Learn When to Say No.” Harvard Business Review Sept–Oct 2020: Online, accessed Aug. 4, 2022.

Michelle Smith (she, her) is a value analysis/value engineering engineer for Pentair in the Water Solutions Segment. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. A SWE member since 2008, she has enjoyed working on outreach committees and currently serves on the editorial board.