Textbook leadership advice doesn’t always apply to women who also need to address for bias. In our series, When the Rules Don’t Apply, experts will explore real, nuanced solutions to help women executives navigate their lived experiences as they rise up in leadership.
Saying “no” comes with leadership territory. The flip side of deploying some resources and greenlighting certain projects is rejecting others. That’s a good thing. Sound judgment and decision-making are hallmarks of effective leadership, so a “no” from respected, experienced executives is a sufficient answer, full stop. Right?
Right — unless those executives are women, who face a frustrating double-bind. Say “no,” and risk being seen as difficult, aggressive, or selfish. Say “yes,” and wind up feeling resentful or burnt out from taking on tasks outside your job scope, then deal with the repercussions of not making the best decision.
Yes, a “no” without explanation or context is often received differently from a woman executive than it is from her male counterpart. Yes, women are under greater pressure to be liked in order to be successful, making it harder to respond with a flat-out “no.”
Yes, it’s all quite infuriating.
Sharon Melnick, PhD, an executive coach for women leaders and the author of In Your Power: React Less, Regain Control, Raise Others, says that gendered workplace norms and the expectation to shoulder the burden of every request creates friction for women around the word “no.”
“Women are raised to be relational and be in service to others on a deeply conditioned level,” says Dr. Melnick. “When a request is posed to a man, the expectation is a purely logistical response.”
For example, “No, that won’t work” or “No, that doesn’t make sense” are considered acceptable responses from male leaders. Women leaders, however, must be both logistical and “sensitive to the relational context, which puts the onus on them to explain their reasoning, provide alternatives, or contribute problem-solving,” adds Dr. Melnick.
Complicating matters is the fact that women tend to get asked to do more office housework, tasks that typically aren’t in job descriptions. This can be particularly pronounced for Black women, who not only tend to be seen as more aggressive when they do say “no,” but also get asked to do more invisible work than White women.
All the agita around “no” and the social pressure to say “yes” is part of why professional women feel more stress, anxiety, and psychological distress in the workplace, which can have detrimental consequences.
“Burnout doesn't come only from too much to do. It comes from too little power. And so when women feel they can't say no, or they shouldn't say no, then there's all of this mental swirl. And that's a fast track to burnout.”
“No” can be nuanced. The contradictory advice on whether or not it’s a full sentence needs parsing. On one hand, there are times when a request is a clear “no” because someone is shirking their responsibility, and it makes you “feel resentful or pigeonholed,” says Dr. Melnick. Then there are times when a “collaborative response that brings more energy” is appropriate.
Chief Member Susan Murray, National Director of Development and Revenue Operations at Year Up, a nonprofit that helps young adults find meaningful careers, is familiar with the nuances of “no.” When she first became an executive, Murray found herself saying “yes” against her better judgment and despite her expertise. “In the back of my mind, I knew these weren't the best strategic choices, but I didn’t have the confidence to run with my vision,” she says.
Over time, Murray learned to follow her instincts and leverage her experience, noting that the initial discomfort of a no is better than the regret of a yes she didn’t stand behind. “I got stronger and more decisive, using data to make it less personal and more history and fact-based.”
Murray, who says she has to say “no” to stakeholders or team members every day, usually anchors her response in predetermined goals. “I’ll typically respond with, ‘Here are the three to five priorities for our team. Do you see it differently? Is there something I’m missing?’ This may sound highly technical, but it opens up conversation, explains Murray.”
She tends to reserve a pointed “no” for specific situations, including “anything that feels ethically out of bounds, out of line with our strategy, or that decisively doesn’t fit with our priorities.”
To determine how best to deploy a “no” start by thinking about how you respond to the word, suggest Melnick. “Hearing a no can be jarring, and it takes a moment to absorb it in your body.”
An affirmative “no” such as, “I'm fully committed right now” or “I'm heads down for the next two weeks making our team strategy” can be more collaborative. Your “no” also implies what you’ve already said “yes” to, explains Dr. Melnick.
There are times when the striking power of a curt “nope” might be precisely what the situation warrants. But collaborative approaches help quite a bit.
For Kristen Williams Golden, General Counsel and Vice President of Strategy at Grid United, coupling a “no” with her reasoning and a solution is essential to collaborative leadership. The colleagues she’s most enjoyed working with have taken the time to help her understand their thought process. Without dialogue, hierarchical relationships develop, “and then people can’t function without you,” says Golden.
“It’s good for the business to share your reasoning. Maybe people don’t need to come to you later on because they’re able to apply your reasoning and draw their own conclusions about what requests will solicit a yes or no,” she says.
Golden also considers the context of her delivery. “The first time you deliver the ‘no’ should never be in a public setting. I also try to build as much consensus around the ‘no’ in advance,” she says.
On an organizational level, Golden says that intentionally building tasks like scheduling, planning a staff party, or ordering lunches into job descriptions makes it easier to delegate work that’s often invisible — and reduces the need for no. It’s part of what she calls “a culture of humility and grace” that ensures invisible tasks are “seen as work because they are work.”
Golden is establishing what Dr. Melnick calls proactive boundaries. By operationalizing priorities and job responsibilities, she and her organization are “making decisions in service of going towards something as opposed to not doing something, which feels more empowering.”
“It’s important to develop the skill to say no,” says Golden. “I think back to the times when I’ve left jobs when I didn’t think I could say no. That leads to burning out. If those boundaries aren’t respected, then you should feel ready to go.”
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