The hard thing about saying “no”

Every day, I’m asked to make dozens of decisions, from the simple ones about where to have lunch to the difficult ones such as choosing between two candidates to hire or choosing between two projects to initiate. In the latter examples, there’s clearly someone or some department that’s happy and one that isn’t. It’s part of a leader’s job to make these critical decisions, but I’ve also learned a lot about saying “no”.

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Struggling with No

It’s certainly no fun to tell someone “no” on their project or that they have not been chosen for a position. Unfortunately, people are humans and what is often portrayed as a business decision still stings the “no” recipient. I know that when I became a leader, I struggled with saying “no”. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not fun. It’s stressful. Does anyone really believe that George Clooney’s character from Up In The Air enjoyed firing people for his job? Maybe, but I’m sure he didn’t the first time he did it.

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Corporate Downsizing — Up In The Air

As I’ve had more events to draw upon and reflect upon the outcome of those yes and no decisions, I’ve definitely come to terms with saying “no” more often and more comfortably. However, I’ve also learned how to explain it to the recipient so that it’s understandable why “no” is the right answer in that decision.

My Turning Point

The first time that I really did something out of character for me, I ended an interview after 10 minutes. It was about 7 years into my company and I had some clarity about what I was looking for and what the criteria were for me. That day, I remember being really frustrated because I was clear with the recruiter what I was looking for and the candidate that showed up was nowhere close to the target. I think that I snapped a bit because of the stress that I was under but with hindsight, I am relieved that I explained to the candidate what I was looking for and why I didn’t think that he was the right one. He wasn’t pleased, but at least I was honest and didn’t waste his time, I feel that moment was when I became more comfortable with saying “no”.

How many times have you, as a leader, made a tough decision either not to start an intensive or needed project? What about choosing to kill a project? How about making a personnel change that you’ve been putting off? Inertia is difficult to change.

Overcoming Saying No

Over the next eight years, I’ve had to say “no” more and more. I still need to improve on this topic, though, because I probably should say it even more or perhaps more straightforward than I do. Nonetheless, I have a few ways that I handle this topic:

Explain the broader situation

Many times when I’m asked to make a decision, it’s a very narrow question like “can we start such and such project”. Nowadays, I ask the person “what won’t we be able to do if we start this project now?” Frequently, the employee will tell me we can’t accomplish some bigger goal if we don’t start the project now. That’s when I challenge them to think differently and see if there are other options because there usually are.

Explain the consequences of a “yes”

Act with honesty and transparency — When I’m interviewing the final two or three candidates for a position, I always make sure to prepare and provide meaningful feedback to the candidate not chosen. I think that it’s fair and you never know when someone will be the right candidate in the future.

In fact, I had one candidate that challenged me quite a bit about my decision such that I saw another side of her skillset. I said that we had a different job opening that might be a fit and she ended up getting hired for that position and was an exemplary employee for many years.

“Yes, but” is contagious

This is a favorite phrase of revenue focused positions because it’s sort of saying no, but starting with “yes”. The problem with this phrase is that if you really want to say “no”, this is not a clear message and likely just creates problems in the future. Even worse, I’ve seen this phrase be very contagious so that no one says “no” anymore, but always “yes, but”. A hard “no” now saves everyone a lot of time and frustration in the future.

No isn’t just a movie doctor

Whether you are on the receiving end or the sender of a “no”, it’s important to not take it personally and try to understand the bigger context. For leaders, it’s your responsibility to say “no” more to protect decisions previously made and admit when things aren’t working the right way.

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Focusing is about saying “No”

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