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The Art of Saying "No"

It is a simple word. Just two little letters. Yet, it can be very challenging to say.

Why? Because we’ve trained each other to believe that saying ‘No’ is wrong. Say it to a peer, and you are not a team player. Say it to a boss and you are not willing to go the extra mile. Say it to your subordinate, and you might be thought of by any number of less than flattering names.

Now, in some cases, there is validity to the responses. But as a company becomes increasingly Lean, the time available to say “Yes” becomes more and more limited. Time is more structured, and the tasks that a person is doing have already gone through a vetting process. Presumably they are doing the most important things, and the unimportant, wasteful activities and non-value adding work have all been eliminated. Adding something else means another task pops out the other end. It doesn’t make sense to add on a less important task at the expense of a more important one.

Now, I am not saying to just tell everyone ‘No’ when they ask for something. If you have the time, by all means, say ‘Yes’. Flexible workforces are actually designed to be able to help each other out. But if you are like many people, you don’t have much flexibility in your day. You have one job, and have a backlog of projects you are working on.

When you are asked to take on something new, follow this simple process.

  1. Identify the least important thing on your plate right now.
  2. Compare the new task to the task you identified.
  3. If the new task is more important, talk to your boss about retiring the other task.
  4. If the boss says no, ask your boss to approve overtime (if applicable), or your coworker to stay late to help you catch up on your task.

The key is to make the requesting person recognize the cost to asking for your assistance, and putting some of the cost back on them. When you turn a flat out ‘No’ into a ‘Yes, if…’, it makes people much more receptive.

Of course, the art of saying ‘No’ doesn’t happen in isolation. You do have to say ‘yes’ once in a while, when you do have the opportunity, or your reputation as not being a team player might be deserved. And you have to consider whether there is a balance in how often you ask other people for help, as well as how you react when they say no to you. If you respond poorly, you should not be surprised if your requests are met in the same manner.

So the next step for you is to take a look at your backlog of work, and get step number one done right now. Next time you are asked for help, you’ll be able to say ‘no’, if it is appropriate, without any of the baggage.


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