Should A CEO Ever Say ‘No’?

CEOs are constantly faced with the prospect of telling someone ‘no.’ Although it can be difficult, some very prominent CEOs have shown that saying ‘no’ can be far more powerful than saying yes. As Apple CEO Steve Jobs said, “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” So, how do you do this without making an uncomfortable situation or alienating employees? Answer with, “let’s explore” or “what if?”

June 17 2011 by ChiefExecutive.net


In a recent article for Forbes, Steve Denning addressed the difficult task of saying ‘no’ to ideas, products, processes, etc. This is something that all CEOs have to do, but a task that isn’t always easy. Denning suggested that there are three appropriate ways to respond to someone: “yes,” “let’s explore,” and “what if.” None of these answers are a direct ‘no.’

While you should not say ‘yes’ to things you do not agree with, Denning says that asking someone to explore their idea further, or re-think it altogether, can be done in a way that does not use the word ‘no.’ This is supposed to create a mature and constructive situation and encourage problem-solving rather than deflating someone’s ego.

In another article, Denning addressed critics who were skeptical about deleting ‘no’ from a business leader’s vocabulary altogether. To prove his point further, Denning gives examples from Toyota, Intuit, and start-up expert Eric Ries. At Toyota, Taiichi Ohno (who created the Toyota Production System) would not say ‘no’ but would rather say, “Let’s do an experiment and find out.”

Denning also makes a good point that ‘no’ does not end an idea, but rather experimentation does. Someone will not take ‘no’ for an answer unless they really believe that ‘no’ is the answer.

At Intuit, Scott Cook took the decision-making responsibility off of the shoulder of managers, freeing them up to guide employees in the right direction — after all customers ultimately say yes or no.

Read: More On Saying No While Still Inspiring People

Read: Leadership: How to Say ‘No’ While Also Inspiring People