The Value of Saying No

Last night, I attended an event where several speakers stressed commitment. While many in the audience nodded in agreement, I cringed. The reaction had nothing to do with the speakers but how I think the word has lost value. The problem is we often say we’ll do something but fail in the execution.

Before the event, I did my regular review of “waiting for” tasks. These are items where I’m expecting some information or action from another person. Most of these are answers to questions or confirming appointments. The list has been getting longer, which is no problem if everyone follows through. Actually, I’m relying on everyone to follow through.

Most people have the best of intentions, and they want to help, which is why they commit. At the same time, I think too many people fool themselves into thinking they can do all their commitments. I find this true with business people, friends, and volunteers. Maybe it’s the thrill of saying you now have 412 items on your To-Do list. In some cases, I would say the people do a poor job of planning. In other cases, I think people are afraid to say “no.” This is the group I want to change.

Don’t Be Afraid

That little word “no” seems to have baggage associated with it that says, “you’re a failure; you didn’t get your job done.” Oh, blimperskins! (1) Well, I permit you to use the word “no,” and I won’t call you a failure. Your saying “no” may make my job easier and preserve a relationship. After all, my commitments to others may be based in part on your commitment to me. And if you don’t believe me, read this HBR article by Tony Schwartz on “No, is the New Yes .”

I prefer people being realistic and saying they can’t commit to a date than to work with false expectations. Your value to me isn’t judged based on the number of items on your To-Do list. The later someone learns a commitment can’t be met, the more resources it takes to recover. The resources might be the added time it takes to find someone else to do the task. The more times I have to change dates or plans, the more the relationship erodes. That’s the worst part if it happens with friends or business colleagues.

Early Mistakes

Early in my career, I was guilty of this behavior. I did think I could get it all done, and youth was on my side. I did get it all done in many cases, but at a price I would not consider acceptable today. I should’ve said “no” earlier or set realistic dates. I wish I learned what my behavior was doing to me and others.

While there may be an occasional need for you to send out emails at 2:13 am, it shouldn’t be routine unless you’re communicating with people in a different time zone. You’re setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and your colleagues. Just because the world operates 24×7 doesn’t mean you have to.

This week, I said “no” to a client. Still, I wouldn’t say I like saying “no” as I know people don’t expect or like the answer. My experience tells me it is better to say “no” than to commit to something that doesn’t meet my standards. Some may consider my decision a failure, but they haven’t factored in all the elements.

I know it was the correct decision. Had I committed, something else would have to give, such as quality. People are truly amazing beings and have astonished me time after time with achievements. But they can only stretch so many times before weaknesses and tears appear. If you’re not careful, you don’t see these cumulative changes.

Your Follow-Up List

If you’re one of these people fearful of saying “no,” try creating your own “follow-up” tracking list. Think of this as a pre-commitment list. The list can be simple and need a few minutes. Some people create a custom task view in Outlook. For example, each time you email someone with a question or request, place it in this list. As people respond, delete the items. Then every week, see which items are still on your list. After a short time, you should see some patterns.

Sometimes the patterns are ones you predicted, such as a certain person seldom responds to your requests. Chances are you’re annoyed the item isn’t addressed, and you need to send a follow-up request. It’s a draining process. After you write that follow-up, ask yourself if your actions, or lack of action, haven’t left someone else with that same feeling. You then start to see how this continual practice of overextending ourselves is counterproductive and affects others.

Some patterns may show something about your initial requests. For example, maybe your requests were vague, and people didn’t know they needed to respond by a certain time. Self-assessment: do you also leave voicemail messages saying, “Call me” without any details?

Perhaps, the recipients weren’t sure what you needed and didn’t get around to requesting clarification. If you’re lucky, the recipient will respond the same day, asking for clarification or to schedule a time to discuss. Treat these people as a resource as they’ve signaled they want to help instead of the people who have “pended” your email.

The reverse is you may be asking someone to make a commitment that isn’t realistic. It reminds me of the cartoon of a man staring up at an airline arrival board with the caption, “how can something that goes 600 miles per hour be late”. True, the plane can fly that fast, but other factors can affect arrival time, such as weather, unruly passengers, communications problems, and so on. As much as I complain about the airlines, they probably have a better overall “on time” record than I do.

I know this exercise helped me many years ago. When I started saying “no,” a dialog would open. People didn’t like hearing “no,” so they started to ask questions like “could you do a part” or “what date would work for you.” These questions allowed the parties to exchange more information and set a realistic time frame.

In a few cases, people countered by saying, “We expected more” or “we’ll take our business elsewhere.” I can accept these answers, but it won’t change my decision. You commit to what you know is reasonably possible, and if it looks impossible, you build in a comfortable buffer to find the resources. You don’t leave people guessing.

(1) Yes, this was my attempt to create a politically correct and non-offensive way of saying “bull shit.” Except for one 4-year old who thought it was a new tater tot, the word seemed to work well.