Skip to main content
workplace award

This is part of a series looking at microskills – changes that employees can make to help improve their health and life at work and at home, and employers can make to improve the workplace. The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell have created the Employee Recommended Workplace Award to honour companies that put the health and well-being of their employees first. Register your company now at

Findings from The Globe and Mail/Howatt HR Your Life at Work survey suggest that nearly 60 per cent of employees are stressed going to work each day. A large percentage of employees struggle each day to feel confident to take on the challenges and demands awaiting them.

With employees experiencing significant stress due to rising work demands, leaders can play an important role in creating a culture where it's safe for an employee to say, "I'm sorry, I can't do that because …"

The microskill of giving employees permission to say no lets staff know when and how it's okay for them to say "No," provided they can explain why. This typically provides a leader with insight through the employee's eyes as to why they don't think they can complete a particular request within the timeframe asked.

Understand where the average employee is starting from each day.

The first step is to understand why many employees naturally don't say no to a leader's requests, even when they don't think it makes sense or is fair. Many employees don't have the confidence to self-advocate their position. Instead of not saying anything, they push themselves, build up regret, and put their health at risk. This can result in an organization losing top talent who feels overburdened.

Why? Perhaps one reason is the gap in the average employee's self-esteem that reflects their overall emotional evaluation of their self-worth. When I speak on coping skills, I often ask, "What is the average Canadian's self-esteem, on a scale of one to 10?" The average each group comes up with is five. After asking the same question for more than 10 years, it appears likely a high percentage of employee's have a gap in their self-esteem.

Self-esteem typically grows and is at its peak when the average person is in their late 60s. Leaders who are aware of this know that their actions and words can have a positive impact on shaping employees' self-esteem and can help influence employees in a positive way. Employees with self-esteem have more confidence and less fear, stress and risk for mental health issues. As well, they are more engaged and productive in their work.

Giving employees the permission to say "No"

Set expectationsInform your team how important it is to you that every employee takes an active role in managing their workload. Set the expectation that you want and support all your employees to know you are OK with them using the word "No" provided they keep emotions out of it and simply explain their reasons why they are unable to take on an additional task.

This creates an opportunity to start conversations about resetting priorities, and creates a win-win for all.

For example: "I want you to know that it's okay to say no and I just ask you to explain to me your reasons why. My job is to listen. We may not always agree, but I want us to have that conversation. My intention is to achieve our targets and goals efficiently"

Embrace employees' ability to self-advocate

Once you set expectations, you need to be ready for employees to actually say "no." When they do, the first response is not to challenge or judge them with your words or body language. Pause, focus on the employee and seek to understand their concerns.

Often, the issues could be something simple like being unclear on a deadline for when a particular task must be completed. When leaders ask for something, many employees think it means right now. When an employee says no, it may end in a simple exchange that makes the timeline clear and releases stress and pressure. In other cases, it may be shifting priorities, or simply a staffing issue that indicates that it's time to add more capacity.

The goal of giving permission to say "no" is to create a culture where employees feel safe to interact and communicate honestly and openly with their leader. The most effective leaders know that one of their most important roles is to remove barriers. One common barrier for many employees is trust with their direct manager. Leaders who practice and adhere to this microskill facilitate a two-way accountability model and create opportunities for employees to own their careers and trust that their leaders care about them personally.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto. He is also the president of Howatt HR Consulting and founder of TalOp, in Kentville, N.S.

This series supports The Globe and Mail and Morneau Shepell's Employee Recommended Workplace Award.

This award recognizes employers who have the healthiest, most engaged and most productive employees. It promotes a two-way accountability model where an employer can support employees to have a positive workplace experience.

You can find all the stories in this series at this link:

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles