If saying NO is fundamental to success then why don’t we say it?
A quick Google search of the phrase, “the power of saying no” produces over 1 BILLION results ranging from Tony Robbins to the Harvard Business Review. If you have been a part of the corporate world you have probably come across quotes from the likes of Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Tony Blair regarding the power of NO and its role in effective leadership. Author and contributing editor Judith Sills Ph.D. wrote in the November 2013 issue of Psychology Today, “Wielded wisely, ‘No’ is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free.”
Did you catch that? To paraphrase Dr. Sills, “NO” WILL SET US FREE!
Is it as easy as the quotes make it sound? Can I rock up to the office tomorrow and say NO to 90% of the ideas that are presented even though it’s probably the right thing to do? Not in most companies. The power of NO is clear, yet we still don’t effectively use the approach. As with most complex topics that we distill into sound bites, the nuance is lost and we never learn HOW to do it!
I remember my first serious discussion about the power of NO and its use in the workplace to improve results. Leading a product management team, I was feeling pressure to deliver significant product enhancements, to address large numbers of bug fixes and to reduce technical debt. It was a trifecta: my small team couldn’t keep up with the demand, our development team didn’t have the bandwidth to address the volume of work, and customers were growing impatient for both fixes and improvements. The business historically was highly profitable, so the spotlight was on us to deliver results.
Our executive leadership team was seasoned and well-intentioned, grasping quickly the need for focus. Confident that we were on the right path we informed our teams of our new directive to “ruthlessly prioritize” and then were promptly confronted with the reality that nothing was changing. In retrospect, the solution was clear, but I have to say that in the moment, I couldn’t see why our approach wasn’t having the desired effect.
Making NO work: a compelling strategy and culture
We were lacking 2 important ingredients in the recipe that makes NO work. The first was a compelling target—while we had agreed to stop the madness and say NO, we hadn’t defined what would merit a YES. In the absence of clear direction, we fell back to a comfortable place and continued to commit to more than we could deliver.
The second ingredient that we hadn’t considered was culture. This is painful to say because we believed ourselves to be capable and progressive at forging culture. The tenacity, commitment, and attitude we had cultivated in our teams and which had driven much of our success actually worked against us. We didn’t model the desired behavior and failed to make NO a safe option. Instead we offered only words and no matter how elegant they were or how often we repeated them, our teams didn’t believe that NO was really okay.
Despite our failure at making NO okay, we were able to hit our goals that year and in most of the succeeding periods but it came at a cost—a high cost. Our staff burned out due to an unsustainable level of demand. And we never achieved the kind of next level success that Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Tony Blair have talked about and that we were we were sure we could create. Unfortunately, because we didn’t know how to make NO work, heroic efforts were required to produce ordinary results.
This week, you’ll be confronted with unreasonable or ill-conceived requests which you would typically accept with a begrudging “YES”. One time this week, try saying “NO”. Explain your position calmly and rationally. Let the requestor digest it. See what happens.
Today’s business environment is plagued with distraction and fragmentation. If you are passionate about creating focus for your organization, we can help. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.