Matt's Articles

How to No

One of my readers recently asked me if I could write about how to say, “No.” Upon reflection, I probably could have asked more questions about the request to narrow down the topic. Whether you are in a meeting at work, having a discussion with the boss, or having a conversation with a fellow professional, “no” matters a lot. There is the why. Why are you saying, “No?” Is it because you think the solution is wrong? Is it because you can’t fulfill a request? Is it because you feel that what you are being asked to do is unethical? For the purposes of this article I will focus on the business environment and talk through these three possible “Whys” for saying “No.”

Let’s take the easiest one first. How to say, “No” when you are asked to do something you feel is unethical. Here is the answer… are you ready? You say… “No.” The context doesn’t matter. Whether it’s a question from the boss, from a meeting, or from a peer, the answer is “No.”, And the answer is still “no” even if it’s super important to someone super important. A wonderful professor at Northern Illinois University finished every engineering course with a discussion of ethics. As engineers and any other professionals we all have jobs that affect other people’s lives. This means we are all on the front lines of making the world a bit more ethical. We are empowered and that is it. I am happy to say that I can only recall one time in my career where I was asked to do something I considered unethical. It was mildly unethical, but it crossed the line for me. I used the approach above and said, “No.” It was explained to me why the task I was given was important, why it wasn’t unethical, and even given the “every company does this” line. I said, “No. Find someone else.” I don’t think I lost any points with management because of it, though, I certainly didn’t gain any. Frankly, I don’t know for sure. I tend to look at these things as I have to live with myself in the end, so what anyone else thinks really doesn’t matter. 

Next up, let’s talk about a more typical challenge. Saying “No” because the proposed solution is wrong. To set your expectations, my answer here is a bit nuanced. In the realm of solutions I tend to think there are better and worse solutions and not “right” or “wrong” solutions. This view didn’t help me at all in college, but has been quite valuable in the practical application of engineering in business. Don’t misunderstand me here, there is a point of wrong when building a bridge or creating a new pharmaceutical drug, but saying, “No” in those scenarios will look more like the ethical scenario described in the previous paragraph. The more common challenge is when two well experienced people don’t see the solution the same way. It could be due to their training or their individual experience that they don’t agree. “No, the tolerance needs to be tighter.” or “No, we need to implement this new ERP feature before we revise these reports…” and so on. My advice here is first, context matters. I tend to table these debates in meetings. I will generally go in the direction of the boss. It is her/his ass on the line. I tell my peers, lets try it out before anyone says “no.” I see this play out all the time with wasteful, unproductive arguments simply because none of us can see the future. We can only extrapolate from what we learned in the past. I try to get past the egos in these scenarios, including my own! I shut the discussion down, not with a “no”, but with an, “okay, let’s try it your way and lets try it my way and see which way is better.” I admit, it’s not always this simple. This works more times than it fails and it has saved me many lengthy frustrating debates in conference rooms and hallways.

Finally, let’s take the most challenging of the “No” situations. The “No. I can’t”. The “No. I just don’t have the time to do it.” The “No. I don’t know how to do it.” The “No. I don’t understand what is being asked of me.” These are the “Nos” that I am the worst at. I have always wanted to be seen as the guy that can get it done. I want to make my boss happy. I want people to think I know what the hell they are talking about. My emotional desire to please people and be accepted has been an obstacle to the proper response. Frankly, on occasion, it still traps me. This one is hard and it gets us into trouble most often because the need to say, “Yes” is deeply biological. We instinctively like to please and even more so depending on our cultural or family background. The first how to say, “No” advice I can give is to recognize your tendencies and then change your mindset. Your mindset has to always be: To deliver a quality result requires, time, skill, and understanding. If a request is made and one of those requirements is missing then you will fail. The fear of failure can be used positively here for you to gain the will to say, “No.” The second part of how to say, “No” requires you to be aware of your emotional state in different contexts. In a meeting when everyone is looking at you and smiling because we just made great progress is a very challenging environment. You do not want to sour the mood with a “No.” With your boss after you have just been complimented on great work, it’s really hard to say, “No.” Think about your context. Where do you have trouble saying, “No.” Be aware of it when you are in these situations. Stop yourself when you start to say, “Yes.” Recognize that you are doing this because it “feels good,” but that may not be rational. Over the years I have become better at this, forcing myself to back track in the meeting or in front of my boss. I would pause after an ill given, “Yes,” think and then say something like, “actually, upon further thought, this may not be possible.” Recognizing and revising my initial statement has made me more aware of my own behavior. And now I am more likely to tell people, “I have to think about it.” That is the real truth. Many requests we receive require some thought before we can commit. We must catch ourselves when this starts to happen. As a side note, be ready with the “Why.” Leading with “no” all the time can be irritating. Communicating clearly “why” you are saying, “no” will soften the “no” and make it easier for the person on the other side. The “Why” gives the requestor a way to reframe their own request and become a partner in finding common ground. It is not all on you; they should have a part in this too. 

To sum it up, some “Nos” should be easy. Is it unethical? Does it endanger someone? Is it a misuse of your skillset, then “No.” Some “Nos” are tough. Can you take on this project? Can you run this production line? Remember, you have to live with your “Yes.” Think of the big picture and use your “yes” thoughtfully.