Telling the Boss 'No'

A UK goalkeeper’s refusal to leave a title game draws worldwide attention to an issue bosses face often.

There’s saying “no” to your boss, and then there’s what Kepa Arrizabalaga did in an English soccer title game that’s drawn international attention. 

In the waning minutes of a tense game between powerhouse soccer clubs Chelsea and Manchester City, the manager of Chelsea felt his goalkeeper, Arrizabalaga, was hurt and had to come out. But the player would have none of it. Arrizabalaga refused to come off the field, the manager fumed, and Chelsea went on to lose. 

Sound familiar? The stakes and dramatics might not be as high, but corporate leaders certainly hear protests to their decisions all the time—and even outright refusals. It’s a tricky proposition for any boss, but experts say it can create an opportunity for the firm when handled well. 

According to Kevin Cashman, a Korn Ferry leadership coach, leaders can hear “no” from an employee and use it as a way to create value for everyone. “Bosses have to be open, self-aware, and agile enough to know that they may be wrong at times,” Cashman says. But letting direct reports refuse orders at the wrong time—or in the wrong way—not only jeopardizes the boss’s reputation but also can damage the organization as a whole. 

Besides the boss being open to hearing “no,” two other things have to be in place for a direct report’s refusal to be a positive experience, Cashman says. The direct report has to be courageous enough to speak up and express their opposition in genuine service to the team. At the same time, both boss and employee have to be able to set aside their egos. “Both have to prioritize serving the enterprise over being right,” Cashman says. 

Having everyone in alignment on purpose and strategy can help curtail disagreements in the first place. A boss has to expressly indicate what issues he or she has the final say over and what things direct reports are empowered to pursue.

For instance, in sports, players almost never refuse to be subbed off the field when their coach orders them, and what happened this weekend was “as outlandish as it gets,” says Andrew Montag, a senior associate in Korn Ferry’s Global Sports practice. After the game, Arrizabalaga and his manager, Maurizio Sarri, talked, and both downplayed the incident. “In no moment was it my intention to disobey the boss,” Arrizabalaga said.

But the damage was done, as other players, managers, and sports pundits worldwide saw Sarri’s position undermined by his player. Off the field, however, top sports executives often challenge their bosses—usually the team owner—more frequently. Indeed, many executives will talk about potential disagreement scenarios with the owner when they interview for the job. “It’s why it’s on the employee to figure out what type of boss they want to work for,” Montag says.