How to Say No Without Rankling the Wrong People

Some think running a corporate wellness program is easy. That’s why we often don’t see the same level of scrutiny over leadership, decisions, or priorities as for new product development, international expansion, or other core business activities. That less-than-crucial attitude toward well-being services can also give rise to the notion that any and all ideas are worth exploring, especially if they come from the C-suite.

True Story

HES once launched a custom wellness campaign for a Fortune 100 company that exceeded all expectations — in terms of participation and results. It was so successful that the otherwise under-the-radar wellness program suddenly attracted the CEO’s attention, so he felt compelled to begin weighing in on daily health tip content and format. He was clearly out of his element; the changes made at his request were to the detriment of the service. We knew it and so did our client, but they were too afraid (or didn’t know how) to say no.

Saying no to the CEO — or anyone above you in the org chart — can be a little scary. But scarier still is saying yes when you know it’s not a good idea. Because in addition to it not working, and potential fallout of the mistake, you’re not in a position to explain the error. If you haven’t noticed, many in the upper reaches aren’t often open to accepting responsibility for failed ideas — especially in the wellness program. You’re left holding the bag.

So before you concede and publish 200-word daily email tips in their entirety for 52 weeks (rather than a compelling point of interest + a link to the full tip), here are some ways to say no to bad ideas, allow the suggester to save face, and have them come away feeling even more confident in your ability to lead the wellness program:

  • Give it to them straight. Some people in the C-suite may harbor an outsized ego and feel their suggestions shouldn’t be questioned, but that’s rare. Most get to where they are because they’re smart and recognize sound logic. If you’re confident what you’re being asked to do isn’t in the best interest of those you serve, say so, directly, with 1 or 2 succinct supporting points.
  • Avoid any ingratiating language or manner. It can come across as lacking confidence. Convey the same respect you would to anyone at the workplace; a deferential demeanor could obscure the point you need to make.
  • Invite them to share more ideas. This may seem counterintuitive and even risky. But something along the lines of… Thanks for taking time to offer (idea) — it means a lot to me. I’d love to bend your ear about XYZ wellness whenever you have time for a quick walk and talk. It says you’re interested without being pushy or desperate. If you’re able to get that walk, avoid word vomiting as well as asking lots of open-ended questions.
Another True Story

Early in my career, soon after designing and overseeing the launch of a cutting edge fitness facility at another Fortune 100 company’s world headquarters, I received a call from the CEO. He asked if I could give a local high school tennis phenom — destined for the professional ranks — a tour and get her set up with membership. There were 2 problems: She wasn’t an employee or affiliated with the company in any way, and I had a waiting list of employees wanting to get in; I would clearly have to break the rules for her twice. I hadn’t met the CEO before that call, but here was my chance to establish myself as leader of the function — with a reputation for acting in the company’s and employees’ best interests. Can you guess what I did? You bet, Mr CEO. If you have her number, I’ll give her a call today and we’ll get that taken care of. Is there anything else I can do for you?

Easier said than done.

A Final Word About Yes People

Sometimes C-suite execs are guarded by yes people. Their job appears to be saying yes to all requests and making sure no friction is apparent to the exec. That’s unfortunate for a lot of reasons we won’t get into here, but if you bump up against someone like that who won’t take no for an answer (when no is clearly correct) — even after you’ve explained your position — stop. Hold your ground to decline the request. Don’t ask for a meeting with the CEO, don’t write an email, don’t lobby others around the CEO. In almost every instance 1 of 2 things will happen:

  • If it’s important enough to the CEO, they’ll contact you directly, which is what you want.
  • If it’s not important enough, it will drop and you’ll get to do the right thing anyway — which is also what you want.

Both outcomes are good for you and you’re not risking your career or your program. In fact, it could be one of the best things you do for both.


Dean WitherspoonDean Witherspoon
Chief collaborator, nudger, tinkerer; leads the most inventive team creating well-being and sustainable living programs. Reach out if you’d like to talk about employee well-being, emotional fitness, or eco-friendly living.

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