As challenging as saying “no” is to anyone in our lives, a topic I addressed a few weeks ago, it becomes exponentially more difficult when there is a power difference involved. The reason for it is that, by virtue of having power, the other person can deliver unpleasant consequences if we say “no.” A parent may do anything from frowning, removing privileges, sending a child to their room or grounding them, all the way to hitting the child or shaming them in significant ways. A boss may reprimand, put a note in an employee’s file, overlook the person when a promotion is coming up, all the way to firing the person. These consequences are far from trivial.
This is precisely the reason why people in power rarely hear a “no” unless they set up explicit structures of support for people to say “no” to them. The cost of having power, when not attended to, means that people in power don’t receive all the information they need to make decisions, because people are afraid to tell them the truth; it means they don’t have access to the full wisdom of the people who work with them, because people hold back; it also means operating in an environment of little trust. All of these can sometimes lead to compromised performance.