Can You Survive at Work Saying NO? I Can…

Would you board a train without knowing the destination? Probably not, but many of us have complicated rides because we fear the simple word NO.

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Regardless of how experienced you are there are situations when you shrug your shoulders with a decisive NO.

Parents say “NOs”, because without NO would we be prepared for a life filled with negatives?

“A UCLA survey from a few years ago reported that the average one year old child hears the word, No! more than 400 times a day!”, says Nina Spencer

We grew up with way too many NOs but one way or another, we can get a “YES” by persistence. Some of us still get more YES’S, but fortunately (or unfortunately) only at home.

We learn to take NO and overcome them with courage and fighting our corner while sometimes we are crying on the inside. But why is it so hard to understand that learning to say NO is as necessary as overcoming it?

I see co-workers in desperate situations because their line manager had asked them to complete an impossible task. Or the CEO wanted a strategy that would take 2 days of intense work in 1 hour. Why did no one stand up and say no?

Breathless in all cases they left the meeting upset and frustrated because the presentation did not go as planned. Why didn’t they align their expectations of what could be done an hour before undergoing the impossible?

Because they were afraid to say NO.

If it is difficult to swallow a NO, depending on the situation, it is even more difficult to say NO. It takes courage, emotional intelligence, clarity and a hint of “logic premonition”, let’s say, to anticipate the consequences of a rapid and thoughtless YES.

Emotional intelligence is an excellent antidote to these situations, and when applied to day-to-day experience, will turn you into a PHD on controlling adverse situations.

Large corporations — and believe me, I have worked with some and I like working for them — usually have long processes.

What commonly happens is that to get endorsement for an innovative and unprecedented project, you must go through countless processes and departments. Scrutiny on the way can be positive. If you get the rhythm of things, you can take something out of it. You build your case taking into account all possible questions to get agreement every step of the way.

As you strengthen relationships with key stakeholders, you win advocates that will certainly help and guide you along a project.

I constantly challenge myself on rethinking my whole plan by identifying unique ways of presenting the same idea for different audiences. It is exhausting, but also rewarding when you are understood. I experienced those moments in recent and innovative programs such as Social Selling and Employee Advocacy. Both are running smoothly nowadays, but it wasn’t an easy achievement at all.

Proving ROI is a premise, the big question is when it comes to innovation, where you don’t always have precedents that will bring concrete solutions for each outcome. In this case, estimations co-exist with uncertainty for the simple reasons:

  1. Nobody has done what you are proposing;
  2. Your plan is avant-garde and only a few brands have done something similar. Nobody had the chance to review all pros and cons yet. That means you can’t benchmark at this stage.
  3. Any estimation or comparison with other companies does not make real sense and will mislead the potential ROI for your company.

For all those cases, your orchestration on speaking NO for any vague estimation act your own favour. How many times have you heard someone suggest, “come up with some numbers”, otherwise the project would not be approved? How would you find out those numbers?

Imagine the negative impact on your credibility if, two months later, your estimations prove to be completely speculative. That is the risk you take on making up empty conclusions. As your project goes, the result appears and who will have to explain the metrics previously calculated, is you!

Nothing more truthful than dot the i’s and cross the t’s showing the potential there may be (what you know and what you see in this project), but never considering numbers you cannot predict.

At Unilever in the UK, the leader of Insights & Analytics reports directly to the CEO.He participates in all strategic meetings contributing to decisions based on facts, not guesswork. Not every company has such a structure, but you can try to evolve an adverse attitude towards guessing in many ways.

Companies and leaders, who have awakened to this need, have led pilots to comprehend some answers before fully stepping in. Teams take small risks, including low investment, and learn from it by assessing the real potential first.

“A solution is to train your mind-set on identifying the reasons behind a negative.”

When you explain the reason, for example, on the fact that you need to evaluate certain factors before a preliminary conclusion or simply to get to experience something else to feel the initial concrete results, people understand the value of your NO. But if do not recognise your own arguments, how will you be able to move on?

Change brings urgency, uncertainty and fear. Flexibility should be a mantra for anyone.

Think of a great leader. Someone with whom you have worked with that made things happen sensibly.

The leader you admire, is probably someone who knows how to manage their emotions and listen. They know how to stop and hear what their teams are saying and devote time to translate these emotions into positive and productive actions.

By changing the “do not know about it” to “I understand how you are feeling” good leaders put themselves in our shoes and hold a natural empathy.

You can be brilliant, but if you are unable to influence and have the right attitude especially in problem solving, people will not count on you.

Saying NO is part of a maturing process and professionals, who are aware of their own emotional intelligence, will receive it positively if well claimed.

NO should, by any means, act as procrastination, but the absence of resources just to meet last minute demands (read: despair). Is a recipe for disaster!

In many cases you cannot show up with a categorical NO and find yourself at the edge to undergo the risk of creating empty estimations. Take a breath and think on the impact of your (irrational) YES.

Imagine the complications you create for yourself and your project if presenting any distorted data to your VP.

I must confess every time I responded to an unexpected and quite impossible demand, I built as many arguments as I could in order to bring the YES that was asked me for. The weighted factors went from time management to risky factors on showing unprecedented data without detailed observations. Presenting all options helped me achieve a reasonable YES and my negatives (or arguments) were accepted every time.

When your mum used to say NO, shoving endless arguments down your throat, you were able to understand her reasons at this point because she clearly made a lot of sense.

You may have not noticed yet, but this analogy suits well for what we face at work. You deal with a set of stretches and pulls, but as long as you understand the reasons behind it, even if you disagree, you embrace the facts with a positive attitude and move on.

So why treat projects we put so much effort into with frivolousness?

I hope to say less “NOs” than “YESes” in my career. If I give you a NO, trust me, I am planning for a sensible YES.

Have you noticed that I used NO many times in this post? Did it bother you or make you feel more familiar with a NO? I hope your answer is the second choice.

Stop prophesying on things we do not know and start experimenting, proving what we do know.

A NO coupled with a good argument is the key to any successful relationship at work and life.

Say NO as you seek for a better YES!