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.

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