Saying No in leadership is a bit of a superpower, in my view.
Many people look for the quick time management tricks. The tools and techniques that will magically handle their workload and reduce stress.
You’re never going to be so efficient that you can handle anything that’s thrown at you.
The best way to focus on the real priorities, reduce ridiculous workloads and help you and your team feel a whole lot better is to start saying No.
Unfortunately, this is a lot harder than using the latest productivity app, because it involves having potentially uncomfortable conversations with people.
In this post, I’m going to cover some of the amazing things that happen when we start to say No. Hopefully, this can encourage you leaders out there to start doing it more often!
What Saying No Is and Isn’t
First, let’s do a quick review of what we mean by saying “No”.
Sometimes, we can assume that it means holding out your hand and screaming the word “No” in someone’s face. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work too well in most workplaces.
Instead, saying “No” is often a lot more subtle. You can think of it as “pushing back” if that helps.
I’ve spoken about this at length before in Thoughtful Leader Podcast #92, but below is a quick summary of options for saying No.
For example, you could:
- Change the request. You could suggest a different way of doing something to achieve a similar result, which will be easier for you to complete.
- Delay. Instead of “No”, it’s “We’re working on these 3 items at the moment. Could I get to that next week instead?”
- Transfer. “Could Tanya’s team possibly help out with this? She mentioned they had a bit of capacity.”
- Negotiate. “I’ve got these 3 big items on my list. If we take on this new one, which one of these 3 can we drop?”
It doesn’t have to be a huge conflict, and you’ll often appear more reasonable when you phrase things in a more diplomatic and measured way.
Learn More: Why Leaders Must Push Back and Say “No”.
Amazing Things That Happen When You Say “No”
Sure, saying No can be a little stressful and perhaps feel confrontational. On top of that, you’re also probably concerned about feeling unhelpful or being perceived as not being a “team player”.
Well, let’s focus on some of the great things that happen when we do choose to say No.
1. You Force People to Think and Make a Choice
When you ask your team to do something and they always say “Yes”, it’s easy. You don’t really need to think hard about what’s important, because everything is being done.
What often happens when we continuously say Yes, is that everything starts to become a priority. But in reality, that means there are no priorities…because “everything is important”.
Over time, our workload becomes larger, until there are things that just aren’t being looked at.
When we say No, however, the situation changes.
At first, it might be a bit of a shock when you say No to someone.
“You mean we can’t do everything?”
This forces people to ask an important question. And that question is what is the most important work we can be doing with the limited resources we have?
I know what you’re thinking.
What if my boss makes the choice to say “I don’t care, you need to do it all”?
They’ve actually done you a big favour by showing you what sort of leader they are, and what sort of workplace you’re in.
And then you can ask yourself an important question: Do I really want to spend my time in this environment?
Learn More: Too Many Priorities: What to Do When You’re Asked to Do It All.
2. Saying No Sets An Example
Do you want to lead a team of “Yes people”, who never push back on you? Or do you want them to push back sometimes when the going gets tough?
As thoughtful leaders, I’d bet that you’d like the latter because it’s better for you and the team in the long run.
Well, if you want people in your team to be assertive and push back, you’re going to have to show them how to do it.
Gandhi is often quoted as saying:
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Apparently what he actually said is:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.
As a person changes their own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards them. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
Regardless of the exact quote, the meaning I take out of this is that we should start doing the thing that you want to see more of.
I write about thoughtful leadership every week because I want to see more of it. And I like to think I act and lead in a thoughtful way, to encourage others to do so, too.
You can do the same thing for your people and organisation.
3. Saying No Sets A Precedent
Saying No sets an example, for sure. An example that people can follow.
But it also sets a precedent for the future.
If people know that you aren’t going to say “Yes” every time, they might just start to think harder before they come to you with unreasonable demands or last-minute work.
As leaders, we need to be very aware of the precedent that we are setting through our actions.
Saying No sets a positive precedent that we are going to safeguard our time and energy.
Saying Yes does the opposite.
Which one are you going to choose?
Learn More: Do You Have a Victim Leadership Mentality?
4. You Have a Chance to Get What You Want
When we give in and agree to unreasonable demands, we are at risk of becoming stressed and overwhelmed.
It may feel easier in some ways, because we don’t need to engage in conflict. We simply concede.
Sure, we might feel stressed, but at least we didn’t have to disagree with the boss!
The thing is, if we never try, we have no chance of getting what we really want. And what we want is a reasonable workload with clear and reasonable (perhaps still challenging) priorities.
There is a nice quote from George Addair that goes:
Everything you want is on the other side of fear.
Well, everything you want is on the other side of “No”.
If you don’t try, you’ll never get there.
So why not give it a shot?
What can you start saying No to? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments below!
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