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Harvard Business Review Leadership

Strength of No

There are lots of articles online teaching you about how and when to say “No” to a request. It’s a common problem, especially for those of us who want to be seen as a team player or go-to person.

However, getting your “No” right is a super powerful way of building up this perception. It’s really bad if you say “Yes” to every single request, and end up delivering badly on most of them. The reputation for being flaky or unreliable is definitely not where you want to be.

Recently I had a classic opportunity to say “No” in a constructive way. One of my teams were racing to finish a high profile project with a fixed deadline. In the tech world, that equates to a big “Do Not Disturb” sign flashing over their heads. Another department had an idea for a short term initiative, with a desired start date that would impact the team and risk the high profile project.

First up, I did some fact finding. Pulling in some domain experts to confirm my understanding of the new initiative, and the impact it would have. Then I looked at options. Were there other people available with the skills to help out? What was the actual impact of the current work, and who cared about it being successful. If we left the team alone, when could they pick-up the fresh initiative, and what date could it launch by?

All this came together to present a strong “No” to the other department, backed up by the reasons for that answer. “We cannot support the new initiative by date X, as the required team are fully committed to Project Y in support of one of our major company objectives. They will be available in two weeks time, meaning we could launch the new initiative before the end of the year if that would still provide value.”

Even with the strength of the answer, I was able to present options for the other department, giving them an expectation of when we’d be able to support them, even though it didn’t meet their initially desired dates. This slight softening helps to maintain the long term relationship with the rest of the business.

If the project had been lower profile, there had been more lead time or the team was less committed, then I could have used a different approach. I’d use these for times where I’d prefer not to distract the team, but to keep the conversation open.

The lighter forms are statements like “Yes we can do that if …” or “Yes, but it’ll need …”. These are particularly useful approaches if the person requesting work is also the stakeholder for the existing work. You give them options on what to pursue, whilst being very clear that not everything will keep happening at the same pace.

Saying “No” effectively is a vital skill, so find opportunities to practice it whilst leaving a positive impression as a result.