Saying No: Your Success Depends On It

As you probably realize, from your own experience both personally and in the workplace, saying ‘no’ is often much harder than saying ‘yes’. Advice about how to be more skilled in saying ‘no’ is prolific. For example, one article, in Psychology Today, focuses on specific techniques to master the art of saying no. Another, in the New York Times, identifies a simpler approach to help with the same key behaviour – turning down additional inbound commitments that don’t fit or align with your overall game plan.

As I think about my recent experience in a large project in the health care sector, this challenge is not unique on just the personal level, it’s endemic within companies as well. There’s a clear tendency to want to do more, without a corresponding ‘rethink’ on what initiatives will need to be adjusted, deferred or even dropped if the new commitment is adopted.

The fact is, many of us in business have never really learned how to say no. Reasons for this inability are wide ranging, but they typically fall into the following categories:

  1. Novelty – something is new and/or trendy, everyone is getting on the bandwagon and we can’t be left behind.
  2. discussionFortune – we don’t want to miss a promising opportunity that feels just so right for us, our team or the organization.
  3. Zeal – our company’s culture of continued frenetic activity encourages rapid design and/or adoption of new projects, initiatives, and activities
  4. Conflict – we have difficulty saying no to others, whether they be inside or outside our organization– particularly bosses, customers and key shareholders
  5. Reputation – we’ve been known for our ability to handle virtually anything that comes our way. As a result, we take on new initiatives to maintain our aura and prestige

So, what can we do to ensure that our ‘bandwidth’ matches our appetite? And increase our ability to say ‘no’? Here are five suggestions to help tackle this challenge:

  1. Check Fit – does the new project or initiative truly fit with your overall strategy? If it doesn’t, you’ll need to clearly identify how you, your team or organization will benefit in tangible ways. Make sure you develop some sort of agreed-upon criteria, based on your defined strategy, that helps guide your go/no go decisions about emerging opportunities.
  2. Get Feedback – check with others who have insightful perspective, and who you trust, regarding the relative merits of your new project or initiative. Share your concerns and have them challenge you with some key questions about the ‘why’ to adoption of a new project or program.
  3. targetStand Up – say ‘no’ politely and strengthen your capability to manage the expectations of others. You can do this while maintaining and perhaps even strengthening your relationship with them. It’s important you explain the reasons for your choice and offer alternatives, if available, that may meet their particular needs.
  4. Resist Temptation – improve your ‘immune response’ and avoid the tendency to adopt a new commitment even if it feels like everyone else is jumping on board. Take time to carefully think through the implications for you, your team and the organization in terms of effort and resources.
  5. Keep Focused – keep your attention on the priorities that you’ve validated. Believe deeply in your priorities and stay focused on the course that you’ve plotted. Try as much as possible to avoid gathering bright shiny objects ‘along the trail’!

To find out more about strengthening your organization’s focus and strategy, contact me for an brief engaging conversation. [email protected] or 250-882-8830.

About The Author

Scott Borland, Founder & President of CYGNUS Management Consultants Inc, , is a recognized expert in helping executives host strategic conversations and obtain high impact feedback. He brings insightful perspective and proven strategies to strengthen the alignment between strategy and leadership behaviour. Scott has presented frequently at regional/national conferences and is a regular contributor to online journals/blogs. Follow Scott on Twitter or add him as a connection on LinkedIn.

User Comments

There are 2 comments on this post.

  1. Good insights on a common issue. I witness many colleagues struggling with this on a regular basis.

    Those who always say “yes” without pause often end up being the ones who struggle to hit deadlines, meet expectations, and manage workload. Nice article Scott, thank you

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