Saying “no” to a co-worker’s crazy idea may not always be the right answer. If you’ve ever been in a strategic decision making role such as that of a Product Manager or any other type of leader, you will be faced with many situations where the technical answer is a firm “no,” but the circumstances dictate a more nuanced approach. In fact, you may have even developed the skill of how to “say no nicely.” If so, this technique may be old hat for you, but for those of you looking to develop your leadership skills, you need to learn and practice The Art of Redirection.
How many times have you told someone “no,” to have them complain to their boss, go around your back, or build up barriers between you and them in the future? Team success depends on the level of trust between members of the team. When trust is low, bureaucracy and process abound. When trust is high, liberty and unhindered decision making flourishes. With every interaction on the team, you want to work to build trust. However, that naughty “no” word often gets between you and the very members of the team you depend on the most. These are the high energy people constantly coming up with new innovative (and often crazy) ideas eating up your valuable time as they push for the urgency and importance of acting on their latest idea NOW! Instead of seeing this as a drain on your limited time and mental capacity, however, you should begin to consider these people as a gift.
Let me explain with a metaphor. One of my hobbies is riding and training horses. Now, there are many similarities to working with horses and leading people. Take for example training an unstarted colt we’ll nickname, “Sludge.” Sludge has the body mass and muscle to work hard and do well in his life as a horse. Unfortunately, however, Sludge is as dull as a sledgehammer. His attitude towards life appears calm on the outside, but that’s only because he intends to only ever do the absolute least amount of work he can get away with. Ask him to work and you will see a very different side of Sludge as he tries to buck you off, bite your leg, or remove the pressure you’re putting on him in many other ways. Sludge may look like a good horse out in the pasture, but he is one of the most difficult to train because he doesn’t have something we horse people call, “Try.” Now, compare Sludge to another horse out in the pasture. Her name is “Skitz”. Skitz never seems to grow no matter how much food you feed her. She doesn’t look pretty with her bony frame and poor breeding and she hasn’t been started yet either. When you ride her for the first time, she zig zags all over the place alternately going every speed imaginable. Skitz fits her name well and doesn’t look safe or beautiful, but inside she has an attitude worth it’s weight in gold. You see, Skitz has “Try.” She doesn’t know what the right thing is to do yet, but that’s what the trainer teaches her as she develops. How? By redirecting her energy from the wrong things to the right things. That energy is a gift to the horse trainer. A gift Sludge will never give. At the end of the day, despite her poor appearance, Skitz will be the one winning the competitions while Sludge will be lucky if he ever makes it to a higher level than that of a trail horse.
Applying that back to our discussion about saying “no” and the Art of Redirection. Your co-workers with crazy (innovative) ideas are like the horse, Skitz. They don’t need to be told “no,” they need to be asked a question. And that question is simply this: How about we do ______ instead? The key here is to redirect the gift of their energy and ideas into something useful. When you’re successful at doing that, you’ve avoided ever having to say “no,” and you’ve built a partnership of teamwork and trust. Next time you need to say “no” to a co-worker, how about redirecting them in another direction instead? You might just discover the gift of co-workers with crazy ideas…