How Nice Leaders Say No

At work, as in life, there are always going to be jerks. They seem to climb—or claw their way up—fast, but you don’t have to join them to succeed.

“You don’t have to check your true self at the door,” says Fran Hauser, author of The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate. “Nice and strong are not mutually exclusive traits. I believe that the most effective leaders have both.”

A former media executive, Hauser is talking from experience. She helmed the digital teams of some of Time Inc.’s most important brands—People, InStyle, Entertainment Weekly and Essence—while scooping up industry accolades along the way, including Advertising Age’s “Women to Watch” award. Still, her door was always open to people who wanted her help; one question she frequently got from young women was, “How can you be so nice and successful?”

Still, being kind does not mean having zero boundaries. You have to say no sometimes, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it. Just in time for summer—when colleagues go on vacation and projects need sitters—Hauser, now an angel investor, shares how to say no with grace and confidence.

#1. Skip the “I’m sorry’s.”

“We often start a negative answer with ‘I’m sorry,’ but you don’t need to apologize for turning down a request. Instead, I would start with ‘thank you’—thank you for the opportunity, thanks for thinking of me, thanks for trusting me, etc.”

#2. Be specific about why you can’t do it.

 “The likely reason—that you’re too busy—doesn’t feel adequate as an explanation. To decline with confidence, you need to know your priorities—this is true for your career in general. Then when you’re asked to do something, you can say that you’re at full capacity focusing on x, y and z, and that you wouldn’t be able to do a great job for them if you overextended yourself.”

#3. Offer a smaller assist.

“If you want to be helpful, suggest a way you can that’s a lower lift. Perhaps you can take on a small piece of what needs to be done. Or maybe you can suggest someone else who you know is up to the task and would love the access to your colleague.” That, in fact, would be doubly nice of you. 

Fran Hauser will be speaking at the 2018 MA Conference for Women on December 6.


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