One of the hardest things about being in a leadership position is challenging the decisions of your superiors. It’s hard to say no to the person signing your paycheck, whether out of fear of retaliation or simply wanting to keep your boss happy.
But no matter how difficult it might be, sometimes it just has to be done. If your boss isn’t making the best—or right—decision for the company’s well-being, it’s your job to say no, though you will have to approach the task carefully.
When you are in a position of power, like being the CFO of your company, you may be called on by the CEO to do something that isn’t in the company’s best interest. However, being a leader means knowing how to say no; if you approach saying no correctly, it doesn’t have to be interpreted as insubordination, but rather an opportunity to offer constructive feedback for the company.
How to best say no
To successfully say no to your CEO, you must do so confidently. If you are hesitant about whether or not the solution you are offering is the best way to proceed, consider doing more research and thinking about it more deeply until you are completely confident. Although confidence doesn’t always correlate with credibility, studies have shown that people are more likely and willing to trust advice from someone who appears confident. If you come off as unconfident, your CEO will also begin to lose confidence and may consider your advice to be unreliable.
One of the best ways to approach saying no to your CEO is to support your position with metrics backed by hard data. Opinions can be disagreed with, but data must be refuted. You may know why you have to say no to the CEO, but how do you make them understand why? Providing them with hard evidence could be what is necessary to convince them they need to think or act differently.
The temptation can be strong to go along with whatever your boss says, but there are some significant dangers to “yes people” in business. As the business continues to grow and evolve over time, surrounding yourself with these people can quickly become precarious, or even outright harmful for the company, its employees ad its overall goals. As leaders, it is crucial that we be intentional about how and where we spend our time and energy, especially when it comes to explaining why we are saying no to the CEO.
Remember that, as the highest leader in the company, the CEO doesn’t always see everything at the lower levels of the company. You—at the CFO level—may have a much better understanding of the needs of base-level employees. If the CEO suggests a new tool but you know that it won’t help the employees, it is important that you share your opinion with the boss and explain why.
Approaching your CEO with appreciation will also help ensure your success in saying no. Understandably, a CEO has a lot on their plate at any given moment, yet everyone expects them to be firing on all cylinders all the time. CEOs are constantly stressed out and frustrated, but good CEOs always want the best for their business. If you approach your CEO with compassion and understanding for what they are going through, they will be more understanding in return.
One skill that can help you say no more easily is recognizing burnout. Burnout is a phenomenon that CEOs experience frequently, and the condition can cause people to make “spontaneous and irrational” decisions. A CEO is responsible not only for their livelihood, but that of everyone else who works for their company. They have a lot on their shoulders, and making an irrational decision due to burnout could have devastating consequences. Having an executive team to hold them accountable is absolutely necessary.
It is also essential to be completely transparent about your position. A lack of transparency might make your CEO think you have a vested interest or some ulterior motive, which will only breed mistrust and discontentment. Remaining transparent in your communication to them shows that you have the business’s best interests in mind. After all, you want your CEO to trust your advice. If you are being dishonest, it’s unlikely that they will take your words to heart.
Why saying “no” is important
Despite what many of us may believe, saying no can present a tremendous opportunity to propose innovative and creative solutions. A good boss wants employees that can bring solid, thoughtful ideas to the table. As long as you present the idea in a constructive way that serves the business’s best interest, many CEOs will be mostly receptive to listening to them. Offering a genuinely helpful, innovative idea can be a great way to prove your worth in the organization.
The most important effect that saying no can have is creating a culture of respect in the workplace. Although it is important to respect your CEO and approach the issue in a way that acknowledges their role as the company’s leader, they should also respect the wisdom and experience you offer. Ultimately, no one makes the perfect decision 100 percent of the time—even CEOs. Those who deny this fact and refuse to be open-minded when receiving advice from others will only be cutting themselves off from valuable feedback.
It will almost always feel intimidating to challenge what your boss has to say, but if you know how to do so correctly, you will be able to say no without fear. The first obstacle we must overcome to allow ourselves to create an environment of respect is understanding that “no” isn’t always bad. There will come times when saying no is not only helpful, but necessary for a company to grow and implement positive change.