The Benefits of No

It's not that you mean to be a yes-man, or to overload yourself or your team with work. But many managers—likely including you—have a hard time learning how and when to say no to the boss.

Does your to-do list grow longer every day? Do you feel like a hamster in an exercise wheel—running as fast as you can, but never gaining ground? If so, your repertoire may be short of one essential management tool: the ability to say no.

I recently met a manager for lunch. He checked his BlackBerry as we talked.

"Can these issues wait until you are back in the office?" I asked.

"Saying no isn't an option in my job," he said.

"How about not right now?" I queried.

"It's all urgent," he said, typing an e-mail response to one of the urgent requests.

"But is it all important?" I probed.

"My boss says it's all priority number one. My job is to figure out how to get it all done," the manager replied.

"Is it all getting done?" I asked.

"My entire team is working flat out. As long as everyone is busy, my boss is happy," he said, checking another message. "I'm a yes-man. I say yes, and he leaves me alone," he said, sending off another e-mail.

I wondered how happy his boss really was. And how much was really "getting done."

The job of managers is to manage—to prioritize, allocate scarce resources and organize people and work to achieve value for the company. I know that sounds obvious. But then why do so many managers say yes to every request that comes their way? A yes-man (or woman) isn't managing.

Oh, So Many Reasons

In my management workshops, I ask overwhelmed managers why they don't say no. Here are some of the reasons I hear:

  • No is not an option at my company.
  • If I say no, my boss will think I'm not a team player.
  • You just don't say no to your boss!
  • I don't want to disappoint my boss.
  • I feel mean when I say no.
  • I don't want the confrontation. I say yes, then if I wait long enough, my boss will forget he asked me.
  • I feel nicer when I say yes.
  • My boss will be upset if I say no.

The Balancing Act

What it all comes down to is this: Every request is a balancing act between three sets of needs and interests: the organization's goals, those of the other people involved (the person making the request and the people who will do the work) and the person receiving the request. Let's look at each set of interests, and the questions you need to answer.

The organization: How does the work fit into the overall mission of the group? How does the work support the larger organization? What is the current workload in your group? How will taking on new work affect work that's already in progress? Will adding more work affect quality or timing of other deliverables?

The person making the request: How does this work meet your managers' interests and needs?

The people who will do the work (assuming that isn't you): Are people working overtime already? How will additional work affect the people in your group? What are the needs of the people in the group?

The person receiving the request: Can you accommodate the extra work? What will suffer if you take on additional tasks? What are your needs?

Notice how you responded as you read each of those paragraphs. Do you typically consider one of these and skip the others?

Managers who seldom turn down a request from their boss over consider the needs of their manager and under consider the organization, the people who will do the work and themselves.

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In the short-term, tilting toward your boss's needs may work—if by "work" we mean avoid a difficult or unpleasant conversation. Eventually though, most bosses notice that requests go in, but work doesn't come out, or it comes out much later than desired. Over time, teams thrash or burn out; the group accomplishes less and less.

When you believe that any of these areas will suffer if you take on the additional request, say no in a way that preserves your credibility and your relationship with your boss.

Blurting out "no!" and stalking off can be a career-limiting move. But not always; sometimes it is exactly the right thing to do, such as when your boss propositions you, or asks you to do something illegal. Stalk directly to HR or the company lawyer.

It is, however, entirely possible to decline a request without ever uttering the word no.

So how do you say no without getting fired? Every good no starts with yes.

Say Yes

Start by affirming the requester. Affirming doesn't mean flattering, nor does it mean agreeing to the request. Affirming means letting the requester know you've listened. You might say something such as, "I hear what you are asking for," or paraphrase the request in your own words. Affirming is the first yes. It says, "Yes, I hear you." Affirming helps your boss hear your questions and alternatives. When you fail to affirm, your boss is more likely to interpret your questions as a challenge or a knee-jerk rejection to his idea.

Then, affirm balancing the needs of the organization, yourself and the other people involved. When you affirm balance, it's less likely you'll be talked out of your no, or persuaded to ignore your own needs and those of the other people involved.

Here's how one manager named Joe lost his no.

Boss: "Joe, I need to you get this feature into the next release."

Joe: "We can't do that."

Boss: "Why not?"

Joe gave his list of objections, and his boss had a counterargument for every single one. Joe slunk out of his boss's office feeling like a worm.

In another office, a manager named Sally faced a similar request. Instead of leading with no, she affirmed:

"Sounds like that's a feature the customers really want," said Sally. By affirming, Sally set the stage for the next part of no.

Be Curious

Ask questions to help you understand how the work fits in with what you (or your team) are currently working on. You may have to find a way around the priority question: Too often when I ask the question directly, the answer is a nonanswer: "Everything is a top priority!" Instead, ask questions, such as:

  • What's the benefit to the company of completing this request in the stated time frame?
  • What's the cost of failing to complete this request in the stated time frame?
  • What's the cost of completing this request at the expense of other requests?

Avoid questions that start with "why." "Why" questions—for example, "Why should we do this?"—tend to make people feel defensive. Instead, "what" questions help you understand the request better, and communicate that you aren't rejecting the request out of hand.

At this point, it may be clear what the relative priority of the new request is. In which case, you can say, "I want to do what's most valuable for the company," and proceed to offering an alternative. If it's not yet clear, ask more questions or request some time to analyze how the new request will affect other work.

Finally, offer the requester something to say yes to. Give him the best alternative you can that meets the goals of the organization and balances the three needs: organization, self and others.

How Do You Handle No?

Now, gather a little data on how people respond to your requests.

  • Notice how often the people who report to you take on more work without comparing the priority of new work against work that's already under way.
  • Notice how often people ask about how a new request fits in with the department and with company goals.

Once you've done your external data-gathering, gather some data on yourself:

  • Notice how you feel when someone doesn't immediately accept a task you delegate.
  • Notice how you feel when someone accepts a task without asking any questions.
  • Notice what you do and say in each situation.

Are you subtly discouraging people from asking questions? You might be surprised at how small reactions can squash subordinates. A frown of concentration may be misinterpreted as a scowl of disapproval. A sigh of resignation may be taken for impatience.

Some responses aren't so subtle. One director told her overwhelmed managers, "You'll just have to multitask!" Another responded to questions about priority with an abrupt "Just do what I say." (Not surprisingly, these two managers had difficulty retaining competent staff. Savvy people prefer to work for someone who does know how to manage.)

If you want subordinates to balance organizational needs, make it inviting to do so. Start by modeling, and bring up the topic yourself. Suggest reviewing current priorities to see how the new task fits. Ask how taking on new work will affect the schedule and quality of other deliverables and whether it will cause overtime work. Acknowledge when people raise good points, and bring collateral consequences to your attention.

Great managers and productive workers don't just do what their bosses ask them to do. They help their managers succeed by saying no when no needs saying.

When you can't say no, your yes doesn't mean a thing.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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