The Integrity of No

Leaders often struggle with the process of saying “no” when communicating with their teams and making decisions, says Brian Evje.

Some too readily say no out of fear of approving the wrong things, or because of a false sense of what it means to be in control. Some say no out of habit. Some lack a method to look at alternatives, and simply see “no” as the most convenient option.

Then there’s the opposite problem. Some leaders don’t want to be perceived as negative, so they never say no.

Whatever the underlying reason, obviously one can’t say yes to everything. Leaders must understand the integrity of saying no, and how to do it constructively. Here are a few fundamentals.

Understand your habits

Like anyone else, leaders tend to default towards either an approving or a disapproving disposition. You need to learn your inclinations, as well as the kinds of situations and decisions that set you in one direction or the other.

If you are generally risk-averse, you may need to temper your natural reaction toward a “no” by concretely defining the risk/reward tradeoffs of a decision, and by forcing yourself to look at both sides equally. Or, if you are highly creative and want to try most new ideas, you may need to reflect on past projects that ended badly after you approved them too quickly. Unpack the warning signs that you previously ignored, and commit to a new approach for the next new idea.

Define the process

A leader must establish the framework for surfacing, examining, disagreeing on, and deciding issues. This rarely happens effectively without a concerted effort, and many dysfunctional groups simply have not established an agreed-upon process. Without a standard, there will always be confusion.

Is there a decision-making process for you and your team to follow? Define which decisions are team-based, and which are yours alone. You and your team must agree on what is required to present an idea (a formal presentation, lots of supporting details, a casual overview, etc.) and also how to challenge and disagree with a position.

Be consistent

It’s hard for some leaders to maintain consistency with people and processes. It can be far too easy for a leader to bend the rules a bit with a particular person or event. This temptation must be strenuously resisted. Don’t make yourself an exception — you must follow the established process if you expect others to.

Consistency is essential for trust. Nothing destroys trust faster than a leader using more than one set of rules to guide an organisation.

Expand the context

A leader should always say no within a context. Often, this means providing an expanded view of the situation to others so they may see the broader trade-offs involved. As in chess, a leader must necessarily “see the whole board” and understand how the many parts affect the whole. When others focus only on their respective part, they need help understanding how everything relates.

The process of contextualising (or re-contextualising) a situation is not a single event. Leaders need to continually offer a broad perspective in order to keep the group moving together in the desired direction. A common leadership complaint is, “I told them this already!” as if providing the context once or twice is sufficient. It’s not.

You must maintain the balance of being out in front of the organization enough to see the wider view, while not being so far forward that you lose sight of the organisation and they lose sight of you.

Offer a yes with your no

When you reject an idea, offer a genuine editorial if possible. Something like, “If your plan included all the elements of our ABC strategy, we could consider it.” Or, “If we move into the new market of XYZ, we might be apply to apply this; please remind me of your idea if we make this shift.”

Providing a little yes accomplishes at least two things: one, it helps you connect the dots to the context you are maintaining. Two, it reinforces the dynamic that you want to have new ideas presented and will thoughtfully respond.

The overall goal is to encourage a cycle of ideas and communication that is appropriate for the organisation. To do this, people must not be afraid to bring you their thoughts.

Hold to your convictions

Your job as a leader is to keep the group moving towards the shared objective. If you aren’t responsible for this, who is? There are many distractions along the way, many circumstances that will try to tempt you out of your convictions. Resist.

Recognise that the integrity of saying no helps an organization arrive at the best possible yes. If you accept and reject ideas and plans with a clearly defined standard, while patiently and doggedly applying pressure on others to maintain this standard, the organisation should spend more time and energy on the most useful activities.