3 Ways Powerful Leaders Can Practice the Art of Saying No

If you want your yes to mean anything you have to say no more often

Saying “No” is hard because we don’t just say the word, we burden it with other – unsaid – emotional baggage on both the sayer’s and receiver’s part. When most people say and hear “No”, they tend to pack all kinds of other things into those two little letters that go something like this: Your idea sucks/My idea sucks. You’re wasting my time/I’m a terrible employee. Have you done anything useful lately?/I’m a waste-cadet.

But it doesn’t have to be that way and powerful leaders and managers know how to use the Art of No in ways that leave the listener feeling useful, appreciated and inspired. Note, I didn’t say “good”. It’s not a leader’s job to make everyone feel good, it’s to move the organization forward, get the job done and help grow employees as productive and inspired contributors to the teams’ success. And to do this, they learn to say “No” gracefully, and say it often.

3 reasons to practice the Art of No

1. If you don’t say “No”, you don’t leave room for the “Yes’s” that matter

If you run around saying “Yes” to things you mean “No” to, or worse, pepper people with “maybes” (which tends to lead to paralysis after a bit), then your “Yes’s” come to mean very little. Conversely, if you say “No” when you really mean it, people will begin to believe that your “Yes” means Woo-hoo! Now we’re gonna get things done! Saying “No” is a fabulous way to stay in integrity so people come to believe that your word is going to happen. This means saying “No” more often than many of us are comfortable with. Think of it like a poker game and don’t spend your chips on a bad hand.

2. “No’s” help you manage energy

It’s all about focus. No organization or person has the energy, time or resources for everything that has to get done. As the leader, it’s your responsibility to maintain focus and you must always be looking for ways to get rid of things that detract from it – for yourself, your staff and for team members individually (by which I don’t mean micromanagement, I mean in helping them set their personal objectives and stay focused on them). Energy is more important than time and if you don’t manage it well, you and your team won’t accomplish the goal and nobody wins.

3.  Artful “No’s” help employees become better stewards of the goals and build a more focused culture

If you just say “No” and walk away, you’re leaving all that unsaid baggage dumped in their lap. Don’t do that. Remember how that feels and remember the Golden Rule. Take the time to explain your decision and empower them to say No earlier on the next time – and be rewarded – when they see something beginning to happen (or a bright, shiny, distracting idea pop up) that’s detracting from the focus. Grow more “No”-sayers and you’re giving them an important career skill (as long as they’re also learning when and how to say “Yes”.)

3 ways to practice the Art of No

I recently read a blog by Steve Denning on Forbes, How to Say ‘No’ While Inspiring People. I clicked on it eagerly looking for new tips in the quest to refine the Art of No. But I was disappointed because none of Steve’s recommendations included the word “No.” I appreciate what Steve is trying to do, which is to find ways of limiting resource investment in ideas that aren’t going anywhere without demoralizing the people that have worked on them, and better yet, help inspire them. But in my experience people prefer the truth above all and if the idea is dead, just kill it. They’ll thank you later if you did it gracefully and helped them spend their energy on higher priority projects.

Practicing the Art of No.

1. Get rid of the unsaid baggage

You’re the leader so you go first. Before you talk to the person, get rid of that negative emotional baggage you might be feeling. Even if you don’t think the person is a waste, we’re all programmed to feel it when we stomp on someone’s idea. (I don’t know why, ask a psychologist.) Take the time and have the strength to ask yourself questions like this to discharge the unconscious negative feelings and replace them with positive ones before you talk to them:

  • Is this person a waste? If the answer is no, replace the feeling with This person has shown great dedication, etc. (If they’re a waste, fire them.)
  • Do I bear some of the responsibility for letting this go on so long unchecked? If yes, be prepared to admit this to the person.
  • What have we learned through this effort we can apply in the future? Plan to explore this with them at length. They will feel heard and there are often the seeds of success in the remnants of failure.
  • Are you detached from it yet? If you’re still feeling sad over shutting it down, deal with this first. See below for some help on this.

When you talk to them, don’t let them put baggage in the conversation like, “I’m a waste cadet.” You’ve defused your baggage; help them defuse theirs. Tell the truth as you see it, “You’re not a waste cadet, you’re new to this kind of project and are still learning,” and encourage them to see the truth in the situation as well.

2. Give them a new challenge immediately

Help them see how disengaging them from the “No” thing frees them to focus on something even more important to the team’s work. Spend 1/3 of your time with them saying “No” and 2/3 saying “Yes” and focusing on the future. Share your enthusiasm and show them that they matter and are not a waste-cadet.

3. Help them detach by detaching yourself

Especially if they’ve put a lot of themselves into it, take some of your 2/3 “Yes” energy and demonstrate how you’re detaching from it yourself. Show that you’ve released your disappointment and are committed to success, even if what that success looks like has changed. Most importantly, find your positive belief that this “No” will help everyone get closer to the goal and share this with them genuinely. If you don’t believe it, neither will they. For guidance on detaching in a business context, no one says it better than Chris McGoff in the PRIME ATTACHMENT VS. COMMITMENT. Watch the video.

Of course Yes, No and Maybe aren’t always the only answer. There’s also a “Yes, but….” to steer something away from becoming a “No” while the project still holds value. That’s where Steve Denning’s ideas are very helpful and leadership judgment comes in. In addition to this we-can-still-save-it scenario, there is power in creating “creative-but-possibly-unproductive time on purpose” where everyone goes in knowing a “No” is reasonably likely in the end – as Google and other institutional innovators find in the power of time off . But those “time off” projects are designed to develop creativity in people; they are seen as an investment in the people, not the project. Saying “No” to commercializing their end product is different than shutting down something everyone was committed to seeing through to a “Yes.”

In the end, the leader still has to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. When the hand sucks, fold it and hang on to your chips. Come to think of it, good poker players have definitely perfected the Art of No.

EDIT 6/9/11 – In reference to the article Jeff Bezos on Innovation.

This article is a great read for its insights into innovative culture and the way the Art of No can be enculturated into an organization to foster innovation. The article that transcribes some of his comments from a shareholder meeting is absolutely worth the read, however this quote stood out to me as the essence of how to think about institutionalizing the Art of No on a business scale.

But. if you get to a point where you look at it and you say look, we are continuing invest a lot of money in this, and it’s not working and we have a bunch of other good businesses, and this is a hypothetical scenario, and we are going to give up on this. On the day you decide to give up on it, what happens? Your operating margins go up because you stopped investing in something that wasn’t working. Is that really such a bad day? So, my mind never lets me get in a place where I think we can’t afford to take these bets, because the bad case never seems that bad to me.” – Jeff Bezos, CEO and Founder of Amazon

Here’s a link to the article:  Amazon is willing to be misunderstood for a long time.

EDIT 6/12/11 - The conversation continues with Steve Denning on this post on Forbes.

EDIT 6/13/11 – This week’s InPower Insight highlights another benefit to mastering the Art of No – creating space in your life to trip over the “next big thing!” Read it now for some personal inspiration.

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