How to Say “No” to Bad Ideas

Jan 10, 2019 | Leadership, Strategy

“I’ve figured it out! I know what we need to do to set our company back on track! Allow me to introduce… the Pontiac Aztec.”


No. No. A thousand times no.

Now, we weren’t in the room when the Aztec got a green light, and the now defunct Pontiac launched one of the world’s biggest misses in the automotive world (Don’t worry Tata, we haven’t forgotten you)… but what if someone had said no?

What if someone stood up, and said: “No – this is bad. It’s ugly. It doesn’t make any sense.”

We’re not implying Pontiac would still be here today, but we do think it’s important to dissect why it can be hard to say ‘no,’ and why successful leaders know that saying ‘no’ is one of the most important skills they’ll learn.

We often struggle to say ‘no’ in the workplace because it causes conflict. And, despite our best efforts, it can be tough to shut down people you work with and see every single day.

So how can we help overcome the discomfort that often accompanies saying, “no”?

Reflect on your corporate values and objectives. This is the first place to start when considering the validity of an idea. Does it seamlessly align with our corporate direction, and what we stand for as a company? If the answer to either is ‘no,’ then feel empowered to explain this to the team, and move on to what’s next. And quite bluntly, if an ideas is intuitively feeling off, your organization’s values and objectives may provide answers as to why this may be the case.

Actively encourage different people to be the ‘devil’s advocate.’ This job requires one of your team members to poke and prod at every ideas – purposefully considering contrarian points of view and opinions. When you set the expectation that team members have a rotating responsibility to ‘be that devil’s advocate,’ it makes it easier to accept criticism as a group, and encourages a culture of debate. Asking “now how might our competitors react?” or “is there another way at solving this that should be considered” can push the thinking to more robust, thought-through solutions. Recall that Jim Collins’s research in Good to Great said extensive, data-based (i.e. not emotional) debate is core to the long-term success of companies.

Employ a three-step process of individual reflection, followed by small group discussion and finally peer evaluation. Encourage your team members to brainstorm individually, coming up with as many ideas as possible. The volume of thinking that comes out of this exercise typically allows for healthy competition between ideas. And when all else fails, don’t hesitate to put all ideas up on the wall, and provide team members with a limited number of Post-its to count as votes.

When it comes to saying ‘no,’ it’s all about setting expectations. Build a culture that encourages honest and open discussion that’s focused on the facts, and tries to avoid the emotions that we layer onto ideas. Critique and scrutiny should focus sharply on ideas, not the people who created them.

The awesomeness of being able to productively and comfortably say “np” extends beyond ideas and concepts alone. Foster a strong environment where people have the ability to speak their truths and say ‘no’ when we make unrealistic demands, or try and pile on too much work. Saying ‘no’ is an essential tool that employees need to be trained on, so they can use the ‘no’ effectively, and appropriately, to get the best answers and remain sharply focused as an organization.

Like the renowned Peter Drucker says, “People are effective because they say no.” 

By: Jesse Finn


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