How to tell an employee what they don’t want to hear

Have you ever gone to a manager with a request, and been told, “No.”  It’s not a pleasant experience. In most cases, it isn’t a pleasant experience for the employee or the manager.

I’ll never forget walking in to our CEO’s office with a request from my team to attend an annual training we all loved and looked forward to every year.  He looked at me and said, “No. You can’t go. Corporate won’t approve it.”

That was it. Our favorite annual event was unceremoniously axed.

Afterwards, I talked with my team and we all shared our disappointment. There were a lot of unanswered questions:

Corporate always approved it before, why not this year?

Did our CEO fight for us? Did he know how important this training was?

The sales team still got to go to their training. Why not us?

Did our CEO even value us and how hard we worked? 

I have to admit, my team and I had a really negative knee jerk reaction. It created a lot of tension and problems down the road.

How to start the conversation

How could my CEO have handled the situation differently?

I recently spoke with a credit union manager who had an employee who was very reactionary. The manager needed to have a conversation with that employee and knew it might not go well.

The employee had asked for flexibility in her work schedule so she could pick up her daughter at school. She wanted to be off specific hours.

Because there were only two underwriters, her manager could not accommodate her requested hours.

The manager stared the conversation by saying this: “This isn’t the answer you want to hear and it’s not the answer I want to give.” 

This is powerful for two reasons:

  • It acknowledges that the employee has every right to be disappointed in the answer.
  • It acknowledges that the manager is disappointed in the answer as well.

A big reason people have negative reactions is because:

  • They aren’t expecting the answer.
  • They assign a negative intent to the person denying them what they want.

By starting with, “This isn’t the answer you want to hear and it’s not the answer I want to give” you align yourself with the other person.

In my research, I’ve found that most employees want a manager who has their back.

Saying “No” and making tough decisions is a part of being in charge. But how you deliver that “No” makes a big difference.

What other ways do you show your team you are on their side?

Holly Buchanan

Holly Buchanan

Holly Buchanan is the author of Selling Financial Services to Women – What Men Need to Know and Even Women Will Be Surprised to Learn. She is the co-author of The ... Web: Details