Foster Positive Collaboration by Saying “Yes” to Convey “No”

People don’t like rejection – it’s just how we are.

People don’t like it when their ideas are turned down and their contributions are rejected. When people get told no, it often creates hurt feelings, tension, and resentment. Yet despite these problems, people often don’t put effort into how they reject others.

Human brains are extremely sensitive to the negative. It’s our survival instinct. When we are rejected, fight or flight kicks in. People get defensive or aggressive. Given enough repeated rejection, they’ll just give up on contributing. Very often, rejection converts collaborative discussion into a battle where each side is trying to win over the other – that isn’t productive. That’s a battle between coworkers – which isn’t teamwork. We want to be collaborative, not combative. We’re all on the same team after all. We shouldn’t try to win while the other person loses.

I was that type of a person for many years. I was always trying to win based on my preconceived notions going into the conversation. I even took pride in how I was “blunt” and “honest” and simply trying to move forward as quickly as I could. I was an idiot. It was the exact wrong way to communicate and collaborate.

Thankfully, there are many ways to say “no” in a positive, appreciative, and uplifting way.

Step 0: Listen

This isn’t even really step one. This is more like the pre-step one. A step zero.

If you don’t listen to the suggestion or question, how can you make an informed decision? People can always tell when you aren’t paying attention, and it is unfortunately common for people listen just to find an opportunity to talk rather than listen to learn someone else’s perspective. So close the laptop (or the email if you’re on a zoom call), physically rotate yourself towards the person talking, make eye contact, and listen.

Respect your coworkers by engaging with them. But! Don’t cut them off. Let them contribute. Don’t split your focus with your email client. Don’t let your mind wander to other projects. Stay completely present in the two way discussion.

Simply put: encourage team members to contribute by giving them your full attention.

Step 1: Appreciate

Remember, your coworkers are humans. They have emotions, priorities, hopes, and dreams. The mere fact that they are a human being making an effort makes them worthy of appreciation.

All well meaning effort is worthy of praise.

Even if the idea or contribution falls short, the effort behind the idea is worthy of praise.

And guess what – if the idea or contribution falls short, it is likely due to poor leadership. Team members are not at fault for shortcomings when they are making contributions based on incomplete information or poor guidance. That is a failure of the leader, not the individual team member. Leaders must work hard to set up their team for success and always acknowledge when the failure is on the leader rather than the team member. Reduce these types of errors by maintaining open lines of communication and make sure the team has more than enough information to do their job effectively.

But hey, human error happens. Even when leaders do everything right, team members will make mistakes and their contributions or ideas won’t hit the mark. We’re all human.

But just because the final contribution isn’t “good” enough doesn’t mean the effort wasn’t “good” enough.

Praise the effort to contribute and encourage them to keep working.

Step 2: Communicate Openly

Start off the communication with any “yes” that is possible. It is rare that 100% of an idea is worthless when working with skilled team members. So always emphasize the good parts of the idea, especially if they can be accepted and implemented.

Next, explain why the idea is being rejected.

People don’t like being dismissed out of hand with no explanation. Again, we’re all humans. We like being valued and we don’t like rejection. It is critical that whenever possible (which is most of the time), we always communicate openly about the why behind the answer.

When people are told why the idea is being rejected, it gives them the opportunity to learn and improve for the future. This open communication creates a compounding effect over time where coworkers learn more about the task, the priorities of the company, or the historical knowledge of what has already been done. This helps future contributions be more effective.

This openly communicated why also opens the door for collaboration. Frequently, discussion allows rejected ideas to create an iterative process, ultimately turning a good idea into a great idea. Everyone is on a team and is supposed to be working towards the same goal – so give people the opportunity to work towards the goal. This is yet another instance where listening is critical.

If at all possible, say yes to a rejected idea by simply saying, “Great idea, but we can’t tackle it right now. We’ll write it down and re-visit it in the future.” This situation can be very easy when it is a leadership failure to keep the team pointed towards the primary goal. The proposed idea can be a great idea, but doesn’t help towards that all important primary goal – therefore the idea should be shelved and re-visited in the future.

Finally, at the end of the discussion – re-emphasize any positives or “yes” that can be implemented. All discussions always should conclude on the positive – it helps keep the interaction a positive memory instead of a negative memory. Even if the positive is simply a, “Thanks for putting in the effort. I appreciate your hard work, keep it up.” Finish the discussion with a positive.

Step 3: Follow Up Later

If there was any part of the contribution that was slotted for a future execution – don’t let the idea fade into the oblivion. Make sure future tasks are organized and slotted for future work. Positive leaders should always mean what they say – otherwise people will notice. Don’t think you can offer token yesses – people will eventually learn that your “yes” doesn’t actually mean “yes.”

When the time comes and the task is revived – give the original contributor the credit. Make sure their efforts are acknowledged to the team at large and appreciated. People love to be appreciated and they’ll be eager to keep contributing when they are thanked for their work.

But if circumstances change and priorities shift causing the idea to be removed from the todo list, don’t just remove it without explanation and hope no one notices. Again, people notice these types of things and will realize that your “sometime in the future” is actually a “no” and your “delayed yes” will lose all meaning.

In this instance, re-visit Step 2 and explain to the original contributor why the suggestion is getting canned. People realize that circumstances change. If you explain why it was a good idea at the time and how the circumstances changed to make the idea no longer applicable, people will understand. They’ll also be educated on the new priorities of the company and will be able to provide better suggestions in the future.

Remember, always end these discussions on the positive – point out the good parts of the idea and appreciate the effort. Always.

When people try to help, don’t reject the help or the person

People who want to help are worth more than their weight in gold.

Their efforts to help should be appreciated and emphasized – not rejected. Constant rejection destroys team morale and encourages people to be passive as a defense mechanism. We want people to be active and to contribute regularly – we foster contributions and nurture coworkers by encouraging them and appreciating them

This is one of the many ways positive leaders can generate a multiplicative output from a team.

Positive leaders encourage genuine effort and praise all effort, even when the effort doesn’t work out that time.

How do you say no in a way that lifts people up instead of beats them down?