When Saying No Gets You to Yes

Recently I helped my daughter choose an elective class for high school and when I suggested drawing, she said that although she likes to draw, she’s not very good at it. The fact that my 13-year-old is already doubting her creative abilities is disheartening enough, but it got me thinking about how important it is to say yes to things that may intimidate or scare us, especially when we are young.

One of my favorite quotes is by the author Anais Nin who said: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Saying yes is important if you want your life to expand, and saying yes requires courage.

It turns out, saying no also requires courage.

The older we get the more demands we have on our time. And if we make an honest appraisal of how we spend our time in our professional lives, very likely we find that we are actually doing a number of things we probably should have said no to. And had we said no, we could now be saying yes to things that are much more important.

But saying no is often difficult.

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism, he writes about what he calls the “Paradox of Success.” In this paradox he describes four phases we likely go through in the workplace:

Phase 1: We have clarity of purpose and this enables us to succeed at our endeavor.

Phase 2: We have success and we gain a reputation as a “go to” person. We are seen as someone who is always there when you need him or her, and we are then presented with increased options and opportunities.

Phase 3: We have increased options and opportunities, which is actually code for demands upon our time and energies, and it leads to diffused efforts. We get spread thinner and thinner.

Phase 4: We become distracted from what would otherwise be our highest level of contribution. The effect of our success has been to undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

This paradox shows up when we excel as an individual contributor and get promoted into managing a team of individual contributors. Then we no longer do the actual work that helped get us promoted in the first place. Our focus is less on the actual task and more on people and process. Now our time is now spent in an endless number of meetings.

This paradox can sometimes lead to frustration and an unfocused and/or unfulfilling career.

But if you are able to say no to certain meetings, projects and other commitments, the better able you will be to say yes to the important ones. McKeown makes a strong argument for learning to say no, so you can devote more time and energy to things that matter most.

The higher you advance in a leadership role, the more your responsibilities become less tactical and more strategic. This means it’s vital to remove yourself from those tasks, meetings, reports, projects and other things that you can effectively delegate to others. It means learning to say no to things that are not focused on the strategic outcomes you are expected to achieve. As author Michael Porter says “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

So when exactly should you say no? According to Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever, there are bad reasons to say no and good reasons to say no.

Bad Reasons to Say No

  • I don’t like the person (unless you really don’t like the person).
  • I’m comfortable and I don’t want things to change.
  • Attack is the best form of defense.

Good Reasons to Say No

  • I was curious about the request and asked questions, and the person gave me good answers, so now I know it’s not a fit.
  • I’ve thought about what my core priorities are, and I’m willing to hold the line.
  • I’m trying to build a reputation as someone who’s strategic and thoughtful.

Many of us may feel that we don’t really have the option to say no. And in many cases this may be true. In those cases, it will be important to say yes, however reluctantly, and see what can be removed or delegated so you can remain focused on and achieve your core priorities.

However, I suspect in every role there is a lot of room for pushing back on requests that are not truly aligned with our primary role and responsibilities. And this is when we need to stand up and courageously say no. Saying no for the right reasons is not only good for us personally, but should also be good for the organization.

Then we can save time for the important opportunities where we can emphatically say yes.

The Need for Moral Leadership

Every leader faces crossroad moments where he or she must choose between the most expedient, popular and/or profitable versus what can only be labeled as the morally correct choice. Far too often, however, leaders choose the former.

Take for example Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose company recently admitted that Cambridge Analytica, a firm that worked on behalf of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, misused Facebook users’ personal information gathered to target U.S. voters.

When Zuckerberg first learned of the data breach and was told Cambridge Analytica deleted the information of these 50 million users, why did he simply accept this on faith rather than verify with a thorough audit?

Facebook has seen a barrage of criticism for its failure to protect user data, the #DeleteFacebook movement continues to grow and their stock plunged 18 percent this week.

Instead of doing the right thing when he first learned third party companies were misusing user information, Zuckerberg said little and left the public wondering if Facebook’s growth-at-all-costs mentality means his company should no longer be trusted.

WIRED magazine’s Jessi Hempel recently wrote: “If Zuckerberg wants us to believe now that his company is not vulnerable, he must shore up trust in himself as an individual. It’s his only way forward.”

However, as the saying goes, trust takes years to build, seconds to break and forever to repair. Why would Zuckerberg or the leader of any organization risk a breach of trust?

Doing the morally correct thing requires looking beyond the expedient, popular or profitable when those are in contrast with what is considered the right thing to do. This requires putting people before profits. It requires putting customers before shareholders. It requires working in the best interest of those you serve. And it requires courage.

Ultimately, a moral leader is someone who leads to serve. What distinguishes moral leaders from ordinary leaders is that these leaders prioritize other peoples’ needs.

Yet leaders often find it hard to exercise moral agency due to the often ambiguous and conflicting expectations of the stakeholders to whom they answer.

Corporate leaders are too often judged primarily on quarterly earnings rather than the long term viability of the company. This hyper-focus on the near term to satisfy Wall Street is often at odds with building a sustainable corporation that delivers customer value and a desirable workplace.

Even non-profit leaders can get sidetracked if their mission is no longer in sync with the people they serve. Executive Directors are expected to provide greater outcomes with fewer resources, while board members challenge them to cut corners further.

And due to minimal regulation on money in politics, our representatives in government cannot be counted on to serve in our best interests when those with a louder voice (i.e., more financial contributions) will always have their interests served first.

It used to be that when leaders were caught lying there was a huge outcry resulting in severe consequences. Maybe due to the fact that the current President of the United States tells on average 5.5 lies every single day we have become immune to or at least more accepting of liars. The President has even convinced his followers that they should no longer believe anything because it’s all fake news.

Perhaps there’s reason for hope: At Harvard Business School, professor Sandra Sucher teaches a course that draws on the inspiration of literary and historical figures such as Machiavelli, Conrad, Shackleton and Achebe in order to encourage greater empathy and understanding. The novels, plays and biographies students read and discuss provide rich examples of moral dilemmas with a larger context than business case studies can provide.

Tylenol Extra-Strength cyanide-laced capsules resulted in the deaths of seven people in the Chicago-area back in 1982.  Johnson & Johnson chairman, James Burke, immediately formed a seven-member strategy team and his guidance on the strategy was first, “How do we protect the people?” and second “How do we save this product?” The order of these priorities was paramount to the successful future of the product and company.

People before product. People before profits. Moral leadership is about keeping these things in the right order.

Organizational Resiliency: Failing Forward

Emphasizing strengths and minimizing weaknesses is common not only for individuals, but for organizations as well. A relentless focus on success is certainly easier and more enjoyable, but at what cost is the unwillingness to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes?

Every individual and organization regularly fails. It is inevitable and it is absolutely necessary on the pathway to growth. Far too many of us, however, refuse to learn from or even acknowledge these mistakes or misfires.

Yet those individuals who do accept and take accountability for their weaknesses and mistakes are much more likely to learn how to overcome them. And organizations who are able to see the value that comes from acknowledging them and being accountable for them are likely to become more resilient and thrive.

“To be resilient after failures, we have to learn from them,” write Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in their book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. “We’re too insecure to admit mistakes to ourselves or too proud to admit them to others. Instead of opening up, we get defensive and shut down. A resilient organization helps people overcome these reactions by creating a culture that encourages individuals to acknowledge their missteps and regrets.”

Creating a culture that is not only willing to discuss mistakes and failures, but actively encourages the organization to open up and truly learn from them is one that is resilient. And this organizational resilience is at the heart of learning.

“When it’s safe to talk about mistakes, people are more likely to report errors and less likely to make them,” write Sandberg and Grant. “Yet typical work cultures showcase successes and hide failures.”

To highlight successes and hide weaknesses may make sense when individuals are applying for a job or organizations are trying to appeal to customers and shareholders. However, when it comes to effectively operating inside the organization, the need to acknowledge our failures and learn from them is profoundly important.

“Our observations have led us to believe that, just as individuals can learn to develop personal traits of resilience, so too can organizations develop a culture of resilience,” according to George S. Everly, Jr. in his 2011 article “Building a Resilient Organizational Culture” in Harvard Business Review.

“While human resilience may be thought of as a personality trait, in the aggregate, groups, organizations, and even communities can learn to develop a ‘culture of resilience’ which manifests itself as a form of ‘psychological immunity’ to, or the ability to rebound from, the untoward effects of adversity.”

Everly concludes that self-efficacy or the belief in one’s agency and the ability to be a catalyst for change along with optimism can form a powerful framework for building a resilient organization.

As one former Google executive explained to me, what they try to do at Google is rather than simply fail fast, it’s important to learn early and often. The anonymous quote comes to mind: Failure is not an option. It’s a privilege for those who try.

Organizational leaders must demonstrate to their employees that because failure is inevitable, it must be acknowledged and accepted. Failure and mistakes are only detrimental when they are repeated because learning did not take place.

Next time you make a mistake or fail in the workplace, make a point of publicly acknowledging it, then state what you learned and how you will ensure it won’t happen again. Though this will take courage and demand making yourself vulnerable, you will make it safer for others to do so in the future. You will also undoubtedly rise in your stature as a leader because you are doing what’s right for your professional growth as well as the growth of your organization.

The Gift of Being Heard

In this age of extraordinary technological advances and accelerating change, our ability to effectively communicate has diminished severely. This is partly because we are not equally focused on sending and receiving messages. And we don’t listen in a way that demonstrates that the other is being heard.

Despite the many powerful ways we have to connect, our ability to do this well has suffered. Think about how often you text when you really should talk. Or you choose email when you should call because your message requires some back and forth discussion.

Every new technology has to find its ideal purpose and this usually takes some trial and error. Remember when people faxed in their pizza orders? Just because we can text or email, doesn’t mean we should use them constantly and expect success in our communication.

As I wrote in a previous post, these “asynchronous communication vehicles have become the default way for far too many of us to interact with others.” Texting, emailing, and tweeting are all very effective for sending information. But when it comes to topics that are sensitive, require establishing trust or back-and-forth discussion, using the phone or meeting face-to-face is best.

We have become so focused on sending our perspectives, thoughts, feelings, selfies and the latest emojis that we are no longer as receptive to the other side of the communication equation: receiving. While we may feel confident that the content of our message was received, perhaps not the full sentiment.

However, when we can equally focus on the receiving end of a message, we can begin to engage in meaningful dialogue. We can enable true reciprocity. We can immediately see and/or hear the impact our message had on the receiver. And we can immediately respond in a way that effectively continues to move the conversation forward.

When you experience a communication breakdown in a message you initiate, it could be due to the receiver being confused or misunderstanding your intention because you’ve chosen the incorrect medium. If the receiver of your message can’t accurately interpret what you intended, the communication can fail—often miserably.

One reason is that we make a lot of assumptions in our interactions with others, and these assumptions often get in the way of successful communication. With texting and emailing, assumptions are more challenging to combat due to the fact that verifying them requires more back and forth that can seem to slow down the conversation. The nuance of effective communication—even for the most gifted writers—is often missing in text-only communication.

Being a good receiver in communication means you provide the sender with the gift of being heard—very difficult to do via text and email.  And this gift is all too rare these days. If you are able to give it to others, you will be appreciated and likely gain respect from your colleagues and affection from your family and friends.

One of the benefits of calling or talking face-to-face is you can immediately check on assumptions in order to eliminate any anxiety or confusion. You are also likely to pick up non-verbal clues based on tone of voice, facial expressions and body language that can help you determine whether there is congruence between what is being said and how they look and act when saying it.

Don’t underestimate your intuitive power of reading the sender of the message. You are able to pick up many things above and beyond the words. And this is missing in your texts and emails—no matter how many emojis and photo attachments may be included.

Communicating better requires you to become a better listener. This means really focusing on what the other person is trying to communicate. Whenever possible, ensure discussions that warrant it are face-to-face or by phone, and then provide the other person the gift of being heard.

Success in Difficult Conversations

In our work lives as in our personal lives we encounter situations that demand initiating a difficult conversation. These conversations are not easy, but shouldn’t be avoided because that can often make things worse.

As much as the conflict avoider in us may want to run in the other direction, those who are able to courageously confront the situation are likely to push through the discomfort and grow from it. In addition, the relationship that is demanding the difficult conversation will most likely move forward.

A difficult conversation results when two or more people have: 1) a difference of opinion, perspective, needs or wants; 2) feelings or emotions are strong; 3) consequences or the stakes are high for at least one person. When you’re in a difficult conversation, you may find:

  • There is little safety between participants
  • Emotions are defining the conversation
  • Very little listening is taking place
  • Participants are aiming for a win/lose scenario
  • Participants may be playing a role: victim, aggressor, martyr, etc.

Obviously, this can result in a highly stressful environment. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Use the following steps to be at your best when initiating a difficult conversation:

Stay Calm
Breathe. Try to be present of what you are feeling and what it is you want. If possible, try to determine what the other person may be feeling and wanting. And when you begin the conversation, be certain to communicate your intent up front in order to provide safety for the other person.

Shift Your Perspective
Rather than focus on how difficult the conversation is going to be, try to think of it as a constructive conversation. By initiating this constructive conversation, you are demonstrating the value the relationship has for you. Keep in mind that this is an investment of your time and emotional energy that will benefit you as well as the relationship.

Make a Plan
Have a clear idea of the points you want to make, but don’t write out a script. You should be able to summarize both your perspective as well as the other’s. If you are uncertain of the former, you need to figure it out before initiating the conversation. If you are uncertain of the latter, you should provide ample opportunity at the beginning of the conversation to better understand this. Be careful of assumptions you are making as these can so often derail any conversation, and are especially dangerous when emotions are high.

Prepare to Actively Listen
This means listening to the other person in a way that ensures he or she feels heard. Being an active listener means you make a conscious effort to truly hear what the other person is saying—in their words as well as their body language. Practice holding off thinking about how to respond or interrupting until you have thoroughly heard what they are saying.

Be Compassionate and Demonstrate Empathy
Consider how it may feel to be on the other end of this conversation. Be respectful while they take in what may be very difficult for them to hear. Convey in your words, tone and body language that you truly care for how the other person feels about what it is you are saying. Try to get comfortable with the awkward silence that may result.

Seek a Win-Win Conclusion When Possible
In most cases a successful difficult conversation doesn’t result in a winner and a loser. Therefore, seek out an amicable resolution to the conflict in a way that is satisfying to both parties. This is not always possible, of course, but even when you have to convey bad news such as a job dismissal, see if there is a way to soften the news. Perhaps it is simply providing information about out-placement services, severance package, a solid reference, etc.

Reflect & Learn
When the conversation is over, take a moment to reflect on what went well and what not so well. What could you have said better or differently? There are certainly things outside of your control in a heated conversation and you will need to maintain your boundaries. Don’t take on guilt for the other person’s negative reaction to your news. This requires courage and you will likely be fortified the next time you need to have a difficult conversation.

In order to have a constructive difficult conversation, the steps above should help you navigate them more successfully. In most cases, your efforts are likely to improve the relationship and build your skill at navigating future difficult conversations.

“Twenty years of research involving more than 100,000 people reveals that the key skill of effective leaders, teammates, parents and loved ones is the capacity to skillfully address emotionally and politically risky issues,” according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High.

Start by rethinking your difficult conversation as more of a constructive conversation. Remember that whether it is with your family members, friends or co-workers you are directly confronting an issue that has stifled the relationship. Though it is not easy to do, the result of your efforts—in most cases—will move the relationship forward and build-up a powerful skill in you as a leader.