Nope, Nein, Nyet — When and how to say ‘no’

“As a leader, demands will be made on your time and focus almost continuously; knowing how to push back is a key skill” — Andy, just now.

With at least 29 ways of saying ‘no’ just in the English language, it’s a wonder that many have yet to master the ‘art’ of saying it. Often said too little or too much, this small but mighty word poses quite the conundrum to (nay)sayers and receivers. And no more is this prevalent than in the technology sector.

Startup culture itself rallies against a standard ‘no’; it’s disruptive by nature and encompasses a desire to provide products or services that resolve both acute and chronic problems. Taking no for an answer is unnatural behaviour and feeds into the boundary pushing mentality of most (if not all) founders and the people they choose to bring in to help build, scale and lead.

Who should say ‘no’?

In short, everyone. But in reality, the type and frequency of which ‘no’ is bandied about largely depends on who is making the request, and of whom.

  • Developers — They are renowned for being overly optimistic regarding the ability to build and fix, and estimating the time it will take to complete such tasks. On the one hand, a sanguine attitude at this stage leads to ‘blue sky’ thinking and innovative creations, on the other, it means that the word ‘no’ can wrongly fall out of their vocabulary. This, in turn, leads to disappointed customers, stressed engineers and a never-ending backlog of work due to lack of prioritisation / not enough time.
  • New tech leads — Once a developer and familiar with the problems of frequently saying ‘yes’, when the career ladder has been ascended, such agreeableness needs to be reviewed. While it takes time to get accustomed to leading rather than doing the work, new tech leads are sensitive to the impression others may have if ‘no’ is said. It can tie into feelings of imposter syndrome or inadequacy, neither of which are valid and therefore saying ‘no’ becomes about asserting authority and proving ability.
  • Founders — They have a vision, they want to create it and while they are adept at breaking the mould and forcing change, saying ‘no’ needs to happen as often as hearing it. The ones that are au fait with refusing requests, whether they are from investors, customers or current / potential employees, are responsible for creating the fastest growing companies and often the difference between first-timers and seasoned entrepreneurs.

When saying ‘no’ is good for you (and your team)

While the word in isolation doesn’t give much away, it’s the way in which it’s said plus the context, that can help people work out the why part. Saying ‘no’ is incredibly nuanced and can be iterated for all manner of reasons, most of which are worth understanding in order to improve leadership skills:

  1. Self-preservation — The first law of nature: cutting off that which may harm you. In this context, ‘no’ can be a signifier that someone is overwhelmed and has chose to prioritise their well-being to be able to continue working on other projects. It is not a shutdown, but a recognition of the fact that the person saying ‘no’ has reached their peak and additional work will only lead to stress, a reduction in productivity, quality and missed deadlines.
  2. Managing expectations — Saying no doesn’t need to be the end of the road if it’s time-limited. Rather than an eternal ‘no’, it’s more of a ‘not right now’. When requests are coming in thick and fast, and you / your team are working through them, you need to be able to prioritise and perform a balancing act between important versus urgent. By communicating your immediate dissent, but giving a date / time as to when the request can be addressed, you’ll be able to ease pressure and manage the expectations of the internal / external customer.
  3. Protective — As a manager, only you know the demands on your team both as individuals and when working as a collective. When external requests are made of them, either directly to them or through you, they will need you to act as a buffer on their behalf. A ‘no’ here will ensure that they aren’t working over capacity and will mean a less stressed, more productive team.
  4. Quality-control — On occasion, you may be presented with something that isn’t up to scratch. It’s not to say the idea isn’t good, but the pitcher may not have had the time or foresight to develop it into something practical, workable or solution-led. It may be due to lack of time, insight or even just sheer determination and excitement to get the idea off the ground. Regardless, your ‘no’ in this circumstance is making clear that you won’t accept something half done and will earn respect because you are pushing back to make something better. If people like an idea enough, they will go away and work on it; everybody has a quality minimum and while it may sit at different points along the spectrum of perfection, it is generally accepted that nobody wants to produce sub-par work.
  5. End-goal — The request may be a good one, but if it doesn’t align with the long-term vision for the product, in some ways it doesn’t matter. If it’s poles apart from the direction you’re heading, then a ‘no’ is necessary to save wasted time, costs and people power. It may be however, that it is an end to the request in its current form and instead, you can extract parts that do corroborate and work to meet those. Steering from a roadmapped path on the odd occasion will of course throw up new obstacles, but it could also provide a different perspective that will lead to more holistic vision and ultimately better product.

How to say it

There is no shame in saying ‘no’ and pushing back can actually make you happier and in control over your time, decisions and actions. Of course, the reasons behind it won’t matter to the person hearing it if you can’t communicate properly:

  • Be direct — Don’t go into a long-winded explanation, because the reality is the person making the request doesn’t want to hear it and beating around the bush may cause them to think you’re being scant with the truth;
  • Stick to the facts — Talk about what else you’re prioritising and why you can’t deal with the request at present;
  • Honesty really is the best policy — Don’t people please, if you’re not going to pick it up later, don’t say it. Your ‘no’ — even when necessary and well-thought-through — has an impact on others. Consider this and the fact that they may need to seek an alternative course of action to resolve their issue; and
  • Choose your words carefully — ‘I can’t’ versus ‘I don’t’ has a psychological effect: one implies restriction by external forces, the other is a self-imposed assertion which allows for more control over your actions. Secondly, saying ‘no’ is not negative or a personal attack so it shouldn’t be phrased that way. Be acutely aware of what and how you refuse a request, because doing it the wrong way could lead to hurt feelings, loss of morale or the (wrong) assumption that either you aren’t up to the challenge or that you’re difficult to work with / for. None of which are conducive to a happy workforce and a successful business.

Used correctly, the word ‘no’ can be a powerful tool, and rather than ending a process, it can make way for improved communication, alternative dialogues and a better end product.

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