Getting to “No”

Leaders love to be work heroes.  But that can come at a hidden cost.  Oftentimes, the most valuable thing you can do is say no –and here’s how.

Mary was doing well at VP of business development at a San Francisco tech company.  She’d been hired to create goodwill within the community, and she was a perfect fit.  But here work had started suffering.  Her CEO has asked her to take on a new project in Brazil, which would require here to spend at least a third of her time there.  Her instinct was to say yes; she didn’t want to lose her CEO’s approval, and the opportunity was an honor.  But realistically, she couldn’t be in South America and do what she’d been hired to do in San Francisco too.

When I met with her, I recognized the problem immediately.  I’ve been an executive coach for more than 25 years, and Mary had made one of the biggest mistakes I see among top executives and founders: They’re always saying yes.  Leaders want to grow business, please people, avoid conflict, and keep a job. But accepting every request or business proposition can render leaders overloaded and overworked.  Since this prevents them from thinking clearly, it can also keep them from focusing on their –and the organization’s–most important work.

With another client of mine, the founder of a company who agreed to every merger and acquisition that came his way, I put on a whiteboard all the costs of saying yes –his health, barely knowing his daughter, his COO constantly rotated.  When he looked at the board, he cried. I get it; telling someone no feels selfish.  But when you learn to say it artfully and strategically, everyone is wins in the end.  It’s all in how you deliver that important, critical word.  Consider one of these approaches:

1.  The flat-out ?No”.  It’s best for a reason.  Consider, “I appreciate your request.  Since it comes from you, I’ve given it a lot of thought.  But, I have to say no because I’ve already committed to X and Y.                                                                                                                                                                       2.  Tinker with the timing.  Offer to tackle the request at a later date.                                                   3.  Accept with conditions.  After the request, alter the conditions –“If you assigns a project manager who can assure time and budget, I’ll be happy to handle X.”                                                                4.  Become a problem solver and offer an alternative solution.

The thing about saying no is that it enables you to say yes in a much more collaborative way.  We often think people don’t want to hear “No”, but CEOs get frustrated when people accept and then can’t deliver.  They generally have more trust in somebody who is assertive –who can either push back or provide a new way to deal with the situation.  My client’s boss saw that in her and thought Wow, she understands the business.  In his eyes, she’s not a naysayer –she’s a business strategist.

by Nadine Greiner in Stress-Less Leadership available at bookstores and excerpted in Magazine July-August 2019.