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The Gift of a ‘No’
Nancy Dill

I joke with my clients that I give them my ‘yeses’ for free, but they pay me all their fees for my ‘no’s’. There is a lot of truth in this perspective. Ninety percent of my work is about helping businesses determine what needs to be done, assessing how to best do it then working with my clients and their staffs to execute. There are a variety of fluid business processes we follow to do this: assessments of different types to determine organizational needs, working with sponsors to discern requirements, project chartering, project planning methodologies, infrastructure building etc. All of these efforts are conducted in a straight forward, predictable way that has been proven again and again to put initiatives on track to accomplish goals in the minimal amount of time. Although there is tremendous value in this work, I believe that the times I have added the most value to a project have been times when I broke away from the forward momentum to say ‘no’ to something which threatened the objectives.

These moments have not been my most popular and they have taken courage. Yet, in these moments I have felt deeply that I was giving my clients my best work – far beyond the formal templates and graceful facilitation….sitting there, looking into the eyes of a manager who is not used to hearing ‘no’ and waiting until he or she lets the ‘no’ and the reasoning sink in – each second seems 20 minutes long to me as I wait – yet inevitably, a look crosses over his or her face and I get that he or she now sees the world with a new perspective – one which came from my willingness to take risks and to sit through those eternal moments.

In one situation, a bright star in a department had been flagged to lead a major project. Before the project was launched, I had several opportunities to interact with the employee, (we’ll call him Daniel) in a classroom setting. In our interactions, I found Daniel to be smart but arrogant, copping an attitude that he already knew the material (although he obviously didn’t get it) and demonstrating an unwillingness to participate with the group in most learning activities. The exercises he did participate in went seriously awry because of the careless way he did his analysis.

I realized that I couldn’t, in integrity, work with a team Daniel led because I didn’t believe a team he led could be successful. Satisfying the client who had hired me meant a great deal to me and I wrestled with the danger of losing the client altogether if I wasn’t willing to work with the employee slated for the job.

After much soul searching, I committed to giving my client the best I had to offer – even though it included being upfront about my integrity issues on not being open to accepting money from him for this assignment. My first words came as a surprise to my client – a star employee is, after all, one who is able to present him or herself in positive ways when management is watching. My description was fact based and my concern for the project’s success came through strongly. “I haven’t seen that side of him”, my client mused, “but I can imagine it from other things I have seen. OK, let’s pick Susan instead.”

Sometimes, the ‘no’ is shared with a manager and sometimes it is with line employees.

In another situation, I was facilitating a Continuous Improvement Team which had several forceful members with some history of previous confrontations. I had been warned before the team started of the likely dynamics and I was familiar with most of the players. By the second meeting, it was clear that the gentler forms of moving the group forward were not working, so I stopped the action.

“I’m in a tough place here,” I said. “Judith is paying me to facilitate this group to deliver results quickly. In the past hour and a half, I’ve seen us make no progress on getting the charter drafted – we’re not even bogging down on the key issues – I’m seeing the group go off onto heated tangents which are off track from what we’re here to do. My trying to rein you back in isn’t working. We need to either turn this around in the next hour, or I’m going to have to go back to Judith and tell her that I’m sorry, but this team working together isn’t going to work out.”

The group was shocked. (I am known for being positive and pleasant much more than for my confrontation skills. In addition, the historic culture would have wasted much time before naming the problem so bluntly and putting responsibility where it belonged – on the team – to turn things around.) The group quickly rallied, disciplined themselves and moved forward to deliver outstanding results in assessing their assigned issue and implementing their recommendations. The initial churning was set aside as people came together to collaborate as professionals.

‘No’s in the Business World
Those of us who have thrived in corporate America over the years have learned the value of having a ‘do whatever it takes’ attitude. We have learned to be a ‘yes’, often saying ‘yes’ long before we actually determine that the job in front of us can be accomplished as described, on time and within budget. We salute first, then figure out the details of ‘how’.

Up to a certain stage in our careers, this approach serves us well. After a point, however, we are likely to encounter leadership who needs us to make early judgment calls which are honest. Whether one aspires to be a line manager or a consultant, this shift is a critical one – for it is the dividing line between those who are paid for how they think versus those who are paid only for what they do.

Developing Your Employees
Many up and coming employees don’t make it over this hurdle. They keep saying ‘yes’ because it has been well rewarded in the past but they don’t understand why other peers are passing them in promotions.

This set of skills:

the ability to recognize when ‘no’ is the right answer,
the courage to share the ‘no’,
the skill in saying the ‘no’ well

are all subtle but important skills to develop in your staff. Most managers are surrounded by people who are used to doing what they are told and not thinking about whether it is the best course of action. How much more could you achieve this year if the people around you could recognize early threats to success and address the issues effectively?

If the potential results are appealing, discuss this with your employees – either as a group on in your 1:1s. Ask them what they need from you to make it easier for them to say ‘no’ when they feel it is the right answer. Listen carefully to their replies. Be honest with them – that you will not always agree with or back their ‘no’s – but you want to hear all of them. Let them know that you will back all ‘no’s’ that you feel are appropriate – and you will be grateful to them for bringing you their best thinking, regardless of your decision.

When the ‘no’s start coming (assuming there is change in the types of ‘no’s’ you hear and/or the frequency of them) – remember to listen to the conversation on three levels: 1) assessing the issue at hand, 2) remembering to recognize the courage it took for this person to step up to giving you a ‘no’ and 3) verbally appreciating their ‘no’ regardless of whether you concur or not.

As a leader, you have the power to make significant shifts to the organizational culture by what you say, do and reinforce. If you want to receive early warning of things that need to be different, practice creating an environment where ‘no’s’ are recognized for the gift that they are.

©2005-2007 Nancy Dill Consulting

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