The Authority to Say “No”

By nature, we are social animals.

It is a hardwired response to want to help others, especially those in “our group”, and double especially when we are seeking acceptance to a new group (new job, new school, new neighborhood, etc.).

In a professional situation the same desire to cooperate can divert you away from your responsibilities.  Setting priorities is like the weather, everyone is talking about it, but nobody does anything about it.

How can you draw the line when people are draining away your time?

Draw a line

As a new officer in the military, I recall spending my first months just trying not to screw up.  Is my uniform correct?  Do I need to salute that person?  Who’s in charge here?

Second lieutenants (2LTs) are (I’m sure this still holds true) considered fair game by other officers for passing additional tasks and duties. 2LTs are programmed to say “Yes, sir!” and hopping to whatever they were told, so they are fertile ground for this sort of manipulation. We were at the low end of the dominance game.

I had a liberating epiphany when the executive officer (XO) was looking for “volunteers” to work on a staff study.

His plan was to task me to help him with this extra work that I knew would require a lot of my free time, a limited resource in those days.  He didn’t ask me, he told me I was doing it.  Skipping a lot of details, the XO was a major, about three grades and 15 years ahead of me.

I am by nature an obliging person.  So, I was a little surprised when I told him no.  I’m not sure if I was getting smarter or more confident in those days, but “no” came out of my mouth.

This is where the dominance games begin.

Saying no correctly

In my example, I was buttonholed outside our battalion headquarters and had no choice but to listen, plus this guy outranked me.  After I heard him out, I was not flippant and I really did weigh the time requirements. I very politely told him “No sir.”

It was not that I only said no, it was that I said no in a correct manner. There is a correct way to say no: listen, be polite, and explain why it isn’t possible.

As obvious as that all is, people in a new group feel obligated to conform to the group even if their actions are at their expense or at the expense of their formal responsibilities to the group.

Here is where he went wrong… He moved a bit into my space, got a little chest puffy, and told me that he was ordering me to participate in this extra duty.  I was to meet in his office at 1700 (5 pm for you non-24 hour people).  I told him I did not have the time.  And he said, raising his voice a notch, he didn’t care.

Where can you draw the line?

In a way, I had leverage.

As everyone knows, the military is very structured.  There are two institutions in the US where you legally surrender some of your individual freedoms: the military and prison.

Officers superior in rank have the ability to give orders to lower ranks, but the orders must be lawful.  Two conditions must be met. First, the orders cannot be patently illegal or violate standards of integrity.  Second, you must have the authority to give the order. Obviously, the major was not operating outside the law.  But, strictly speaking, I did not work for him and the general nature of his order did not fall under that Major to 2LT legal authority.

I had, at that instant, a moment of clarity.  True, he outranked me, but he was not in my chain of command and he had no formal tasking authority over me.  So, I shifted the conversation away from me and toward the formal chain of command.

I said, “Ok sir, I really don’t have the time for that tasking, but let’s go talk to my company commander.”

I do not know to this day whether he was bullying me and I called his bluff or if he realized that he had inadvertently over stepped his authority.  But, this time, he thought about it and said no.  No, that would not be necessary, forget it.

I forgot about the task, but not the lessons I learned.


People hear the word “no” every day.  We are so concerned what other people think of us, we worry about disappointing them deeply.  But in a work situation, how do you feel when someone tells you “no”?  If they do not report to you directly or if they are genuinely too busy, “no” is just an inconvenience.  Your mind starts searching for other solutions to the problem.

Mirror that feeling and apply it to when you have to say no.  Accept that a person may not like no, but you will not, under most circumstances, ruin their lives.  Know that “no” is there and in your toolbox as needed.  I would advise you not to view everything as a nail and use “no” as your hammer. You’ll be perceived as an obstructionist.

As liberating as refusing was, the most important lesson for me was understanding, in a practical sense, how important authority is in a professional environment.  There is a lot of talk about empowerment in the workplace, but I think the word sometimes replaces authority because there is structure missing.

I have visited companies, medium to large organizations (80+ to 500 personnel), with no organization charts and no job descriptions. People operated as best they could and things were generally accomplished, but the day-to-day chaos was overwhelming. The absence of a structured organization was a problem from the very top.  Well… top if they had an organization chart.

As a leader and manager it is very important to emphasize formal authority.  It focuses everyone on their tasks and responsibilities. It gives accountability.  Also, you protect your people and your authority from others who cannot stay in their lane.

I know that one of the considerations that the XO had flitting through his mind was how he would explain to my company commander, my legal authority, why he was tasking me outside the chain of command?

No authority = your “No” authority


Kenneth Wrede












About Ken Wrede
Kenneth Wrede