Leadership

How to issue the "hard no"


If you polled managers and asked them to list the things they have the most difficulty doing, somewhere near the top of the list would be "saying no." I can already hear many of you saying, "Well, my boss tells me no all the time." But it is, in fact, a difficult act for more managers than you think.

I'll qualify the above by saying that I am talking about the hard no and not the easy no. If an employee comes up to you and says, "Boss, can I buy that new piece of equipment we talked about?" and you look at your budget and quickly see that you are running near deficit, then saying "no, we can't afford it" is an easy no. It's easy because; (a) you have indisputable facts to back up your decision, (b) it's a person with less power and authority asking, and (c) your relative risk for saying no is low; thus, we have the easy no.

On the other hand, when there are situations in which managers have to say yes or no to a question that is based solely on one's best judgment, when you have to do it publicly, and when it means denying a peer or other authority, it can have serious repercussions - that is what I mean by a hard no.

Project managers are often faced with the situation described above regarding scope creep. They may find themselves in a meeting where they are being ganged up on by a group of customers and feel boxed in. The clients clearly want something that is out of scope, and the project manager knows that by giving in, not only will it add time and expense to the project, but it stands a good chance of jeopardizing the success of the project altogether. The project manager has only his or her best professional judgment to rely on, and the client challenges it or discounts it in a public setting. It is at this point that many project managers buckle under the pressure being applied to them and yield to the client, thus, failing to issue a hard no.

Obviously the situation described above can be described as difficult, at best. The project manager is being challenged publicly and, perhaps more importantly, his or her judgment is being called into question - never an easy thing.

I have found though that there are ways of helping yourself when it comes to the hard no -- to make it less of a painful process.

  • Get comfortable speaking in front of a group and managing a meeting. Some folks just lack confidence when addressing more than a handful of people. While they may be brilliant one on one, for whatever reasons, working in front of a group makes them nervous. The remedy is knowledge and experience: knowledge, regarding how to manage a meeting, read people, and communicate effectively; and experience, because the process has become more familiar the more times you've been through it. This is definitely a case where practice can help to make perfect.
  • Know the facts. The more knowledge you have regarding the issue, the better prepared you are to defend yourself and cut through the BS.
  • Believe in yourself. If you doubt yourself, you are less likely to show a "spine" when you are pressed in public, particularly if your judgment is being called into question.
  • Don't take it personally. Try to remain as emotionally detached as you can; you can be resolute and even passionate about your position, but the minute you find yourself feeling angry, sad, or scared, you diminish your effectiveness and lower your confidence, as well as impair your ability to think rationally.
  • Understand your position relative to others. Realize that saying no is a statement of position and the weight of your no is dependent on your relative position of authority/power and your persuasiveness. You can be in a position of power and your no will have the weight of authority, or you can have little authority but be very persuasive and have an equally weighty no. Conversely, you can have the authority but never exercise it; thus, your nos become insignificant. You can also have little authority -- and act like it -- and never be heard.

I personally do not like to say no, because often times that shuts down dialogue to a workable solution. However, I am always prepared to say no if it is needed, and I do not fear using it when I feel it is necessary. As I sit here and think about it, the hard no is a lot like a firearm. It should be used with authority when absolutely required, yet never used recklessly. It should be used with a great deal of consideration, but when the decision is made, it should be decisive.

Skillful use of the hard no is an important part of leadership. No one respects a spineless manager, or one who is reckless in his or her decision-making. Becoming proficient with issuing the hard no takes practice and good judgment. Master it and you will make your managerial life much easier.

18 comments
abey.abraham
abey.abraham

I have always heard that saying no is easier when you have a solution in hand as well. For example, I can't do that because of x reason, but we could do this. I have found that this usually takes the sting out the no and in some cases fosters a different approach that could work. BTW, excellent post.

shanthar
shanthar

ti is an excellent discussion on how to manage officers and executives in an office .people differ in skill, and when they are pulled up todo duties where they work,some can easily escape the work, and it may be permissiblefor it may be a just claim,others quite aware of what is happening,decide to perform their work at any cost,;as there are many countries, people differ, their views on life;Managing people of different sorts is a hard task,the manger must realise the situations under which people are placed, how they encounter problems in life, understand the officer's problems and why they approach for humanitarianhelp.it is an arduous task and requires ingenuity to tackle people.

stever
stever

I had a recent incident in which I was asked to actually do something which would break the law. I issued the "hard no" so there are times when it is correct and right to say no. Violation of ethics, unlawful, and just corrupt behavior, are my basis for the "hard no" And yes, using it can have dire consequences, That is why you should only use it for the right reasons.

zyphlar
zyphlar

Although the above comments are valid, there are times when you don't have indisputable facts to support your decision-- even if you know they're indisputable, people may still dispute them. As an IT professional you might be stuck in a situation where the entire company objects to one of your decisions. Your credibility and authority are being questioned despite your best efforts to suggest the policy through normal channels with minimal fuss. None of the suggested compromises to your already-reasonable decision come close to a sufficient level of security. At some point, you have the choice to either abandon your decision or stand firm despite possible repercussions. As a responsible IT professional, I'm ready to issue that "hard no" to the whole company because I'm the most experienced person in the subject and it's against my professional judgment to do otherwise. Hopefully a disagreement doesn't escalate to that point, and supporting facts will definitely help resolve a standoff, but the tips above will help you when your only leg to stand on is your judgment.

bmagurn
bmagurn

When dealing with project creep, you can always follow up the "no" with a statement of what resources and time frame you would need to enact the additional change. That may shoot down the wild idea, or go measures in convincing you how serious and necessary it is for the customer.

jlrobins
jlrobins

Knowing WHEN and WHY to give a "hard no" is as important as how. And having the self-awareness to know if you are using it when you should is even harder. If the "no" is a status quo maintanence issue, think longer and harder if it is correct. Also, if your "hard no" runs headlong into someone else's "hard" answer, be prepared for the negotiating and politicing that is going to follow. Be ready to broaden the group involved to 'make it stick.' Be aware that making a particular "hard no" irrevocable is a power play that may end your current job, if you lose and there is enough at stake.

niranjan.gangireddy
niranjan.gangireddy

I completely agree with Mr. Ramon Padilla, while saying hard no you can give high context, give reasoning why you are saying no, then people will be ready to accept hard no. Other wise it may not work

casey
casey

I respectfully disagree with the author's basic premise. Saying "no", in and of itself, regardless of the context, is neither hard nor easy. More to the point is the management of the expectations of the individual or group to which a potential denial of their request is a reality. As a consultant, I rarely have the ultimate authority to make unilateral yes or no decisions. So, after 30+ years of dealing with clients and stakeholders who are relentless in their requests, I have found there is never an occasion where "no" is the only response I am able to offer. Even though many times my experience tells me saying no might be the most expedient and utlimately correct answer. What I do instead is construct an evaluation scenario where the all the relevant facts (and feelings) are exposed and clarified. From there, my clients and I start on equal footing to decide whether what they are asking for is doable. Ultimately they are the ones who will say "yes" or "no" to their request, not me. And when they do decide they have a full understanding of the reason, cost, risks and benefits of doing so. I use this technique successfully with groups as diverse as application development teams and senior level executives. I also use it one-on-one with the same results. I encourage you to give it a try the next time your 1st reaction to an "unreasonable" request is to say "no".

casey
casey

I respectfully disagree with the authors basic premise. Saying "no", in and of itself, regardless of the context, is neither hard nor easy. More to the point is the management of the expectations of the individual or group to which a potential denial of their request is a reality. As a consultant, I rarely have the ultimate authority to make unilateral yes or no decisions. So, after 30+ years of dealing with clients and stakeholders who are relentless in their requests, I have found there is never an occasion where "no" is the only response I am able to offer. Even though many times my experience tells me saying no might be the most expedient and utlimately correct answer. What I do instead is construct an evaluation scenario where the all the relevant facts (and feelings) are exposed and clarified. From there, my clients and I start on equal footing to decide whether what they are asking for is doable. Ultimately they are the ones who will say "yes" or "no" to their request, not me. And when they do decide they have a full understanding of the reason, cost, risks and benefits of doing so. I use this technique successfully with groups as diverse as application development teams and senior level executives. I also use it one-on-one with the same results. I encourage you to give it a try the next time your 1st reaction to an "unreasonable" request is to say "no".

casey
casey

I respectfully disagree with the authors basic premise. Saying "no", in and of itself, regardless of the context, is neither hard nor easy. More to the point is the management of the expectations of the individual or group to which a potential denial of their request is a reality. As a consultant, I rarely have the ultimate authority to make unilateral yes or no decisions. So, after 30+ years of dealing with clients and stakeholders who are relentless in their requests, I have found there is never an occasion where "no" is the only response I am able to offer. Even though many times my experience tells me saying no might be the most expedient and utlimately correct answer. What I do instead is construct an evaluation scenario where the all the relevant facts (and feelings) are exposed and clarified. From there, my clients and I start on equal footing to decide whether what they are asking for is doable. Ultimately they are the ones who will say "yes" or "no" to their request, not me. And when they do decide they have a full understanding of the reason, cost, risks and benefits of doing so. I use this technique successfully with groups as diverse as application development teams and senior level executives. I also use it one-on-one with the same results. I encourage you to give it a try the next time your 1st reaction to an "unreasonable" request is to say "no".

shailesh.shankar
shailesh.shankar

Most of these situations are related to the attachment of people to their views and ideas. Complicate it with ego and authority... you have the deadly pill. The team needs to focus single pointedly on the goal of taking the project forward and achiving schedules. This is the mantra to successful project execution.

meryllogue
meryllogue

My favorite phrase is, "I'm not a decision maker. I am a decision facilitator." When I KNOW a "No" is in order, I work to get the ultimate decision makers (stakeholders, customer, etc.) to say it, even if it means slowing progress while we work through meetings and discovery and negotiations. So far (fingers crossed) it has always worked for me. (...Although I have had my hair quite singed by very angry stakeholders!)

Dr_Zinj
Dr_Zinj

for they will say both yes, and no." J.R.R.Tolkein, LOTR.

jlrobins
jlrobins

What you are talking about is what I put into the 'politicking and negotiation' category. There is still the effort to construct the scenarios for evaluation, get the 'right people' to look at them, etc., to get to the "no" that you are not saying. I am not one who just says "no", personally. To be more complete, beyond just scenarios, you have to spend the time to ask questions, seek out and offer alternatives, explain approaches whether you like them or not, demonstrate options, present the information to the techies and decision makers appropriately, and get the team on board, once a direction is selected with more complete knowledge.

rolondro
rolondro

I agree with casey getting clients to accept the responsibilities of their requests (the initial hard no prompt) is the key. As a support manager I never say no. I also carry this ideology into project management. Yes it can be done BUT..... Cost = Time = Impact = and let them figure whether they can live with it.

Ian Thurston
Ian Thurston

I agree that personal investment in ideas and approaches can work against completion of a project. As a consultant, I often work with organizations where the leader does not yet see past "We've always done it this way". In such a situation, the decision maker usually will issue a "hard no" to any unorthodox approach. "Keeping focus on completion of the project" in fact means "Keep doing what we've always done". This is a situation in which the "hard no" can very well prevent completion of the project. The people on the receiving end of the denial may well have the solution that's required.

royhayward
royhayward

Manager: We need to do things the way we have always done them, and improve efficiency, and have this project done by next Tuesday. Engineer/Developer: In order to improve effeciency by that time line we will need (to do something very different, insert the policy or technology of your choice.) Manager: You don't understand, I said to do things they way we always have. Engineer/Developer: Well then sir, we can't do what you ask. BTW, this was the hard no. Manager: What do you mean! Can't you follow orders? Just get it done. Engineer/Developer: I can follow orders, but you need to give me the resources to fulfill your requirements. Manager: Hmmm. Well this puts us in a bit of a spot. We have commited to our customers that this would get done on time. Is there a way you can start on the project and I will try to get the resource you need before it is required? It is the "underling" that is in the "Hard" no position because saying no is hard, not because it is absolute.

zyphlar
zyphlar

In that scenario I'd think that the decision maker would be issuing an "easy no" since by their authority alone they're able to say "no, don't change course, just focus on completion." The "hard no" would be you, the renegade project manager, who says "I'm sorry Mr. Sir, but I can't allow that to happen." Of course that's one of the hardest situations to be in because then you're locked in an ego war, but my point is that the "hard no" as defined by the author is one that doesn't have the benefit of authority or indisputable facts.