When you think of someone saying no, what images come to mind? I think of an angry person bellowing, “No-o-o!” or a toddler having a meltdown. Is it any wonder we are uncomfortable saying no?
The ability to say no is an important element of a leader’s success. According to change expert Darryl O’Conner, the difference between good companies and great companies isn’t their ability to define priorities, but rather their ability to say no to very good options for the sake of committing to the best option. When we have too many priorities, it is difficult to focus our efforts on accomplishing the key ones, so all suffer.

Define what matters

Before turning down a request, it is important to be clear on what you would say yes to. Having a clear vision of what success looks like for you and your organization is an important first step. The vision starts the process for goal setting, followed by establishing clear objectives to reach the goal. To stay focused and not be distracted from what is important, successful leaders keep their goals close at hand—whether tattooed in their mind, framed and hung in their office or scribbled on a Post-It note stuck to their computer.

Create support structures

Equally important is setting up structures to help you stay aligned to your goals. The head of a network operations center, Matt’s first task when he came to work every morning was to review company emails he’d received overnight. But he was often interrupted by staff members coming to chat or asking for help. Next thing he knew, it was lunchtime and he hadn’t gone through the previous emails or even read his new ones. With half the day over, he’d done nothing toward reaching his goals. To get out of this trap, we reviewed his calendar and scheduled work times (when he should not be interrupted) and office hours (when his door was open to his staff). This arrangement gave him focused time to work on his goals while letting his staff know when they were welcome to come by. Matt also learned to spend less time on emails by scanning, purging and setting up important ones for later follow-up.
Matt made sure to meet with peers and direct reports to communicate his new schedule before he put it into action. When you let people know what your priorities are it is easier to say no to their requests. And you can often preempt requests altogether when you have defined boundaries that others understand.
Think about how you can organize your time to do what matters. For most of us, what we put on our calendars defines what we do. As you look at your calendar, have you made time to work on your most important projects, to meet with key staff and clients, and to prepare before important meetings? Even putting family events, outside appointments and exercise plans on your calendar will make sure you are cognizant of everything on your plate and are being realistic about accepting additional tasks given your other commitments.
Your administrative assistant is a valuable partner in helping you achieve your goals. Make sure you clearly communicate your priorities to your assistant so he/she can accept and decline requests for your time, as appropriate. Help your assistant by suggesting language for politely declining requests.

Saying no to the boss

How you say no to your boss or client can make the difference between earning respect and getting fired. When asked to take on a new project, let your boss know the status of your other projects, state your commitment to delivering a quality project on time and note how this additional project will affect your other projects. These reminders may lead your boss to re-prioritize your other tasks or give the project to someone else. Regardless, it is always better to let the boss know your concerns upfront so you don’t disappoint him/her later.

How to say no

In their book Understanding Computers and Cognition, Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores outline four options when someone asks you to do something:
Promise: Yes, I will do what you asked.
Decline: No, I will not do that.
Counteroffer: I can’t do that, but I can do this instead.
Commit to Commit: I will give you an answer after . . . (checking my calendar, talking to my team, etc.).
The promise needs no elaboration. You’ve said yes and now you just have to figure out how you’re going to fulfill your promise.
But declining, counteroffering or delaying a response are more nuanced. Keep in mind that turning down a request is fraught with emotion for both parties. While you may have little trouble automatically saying no to your 6 year old who has asked for yet another cookie, in the workplace your colleagues deserve a more considered response. Gaining a reputation for always denying requests can have negative consequences for your career.
When a request invades your boundaries, is inappropriate or takes advantage of your good nature you have every right to decline. Being clear in your own mind about your rights and saying no with conviction will ensure that your message is heard. In these circumstances, a wimpy response—whether accepting or declining—can diminish your power.
Most requests, however, tend to be more reasonable, which is what makes them difficult to decline. By counter offering or committing to commit, you can maintain a positive relationship and still meet your own objectives.
In the counteroffer, you soften your decline by providing helpful options that don’t impinge on your agenda. You might say, “I can’t get you a full report by Friday, but I can have it to you by Tuesday.” Or, “I don’t have any availability right now. Let me see if someone else can help with that request.” Offering alternatives shows that you want to help but aren’t able to (for reasons that are your own business).
The commit-to-commit option can be helpful if you have a knee-jerk reaction to saying yes. When someone makes a request of me and I see the sincerity of their need, every cell in my body screams, “Yes, of course I want to help you!” But always saying yes led to many late nights and weekends spent fulfilling all those commitments I had made. I learned that by committing to commit, I could take a step back, assess my other commitments, determine whether I was the best person to do the work, reach out to others who might be able to help and make a counteroffer, if appropriate.
Even if you ultimately agree to the request, the commit-to-commit approach allows you to gain more clarity about what the person is requesting and the impact it could have on your goals. Taking time to get additional information can result in better decision-making and a more prudent response.

When to say yes

There are times when saying yes is appropriate even if you are busy, and that’s why being mindful of your personal and professional goals is important. Perhaps the request can lead to a new assignment or good career move. In those cases, it may be worth devoting a few—or many!—nights and weekends to the task. If the request comes from someone with whom you want to nurture a strong relationship, going the extra mile will build good will that can be helpful later. Think about your long-term goals. Is this opportunity too good to pass up? Will taking on this task show that you are ready for more responsibility? That may be another reason to say yes.
If you are intentional about what you say yes to and what you say no to, you can do a better job of managing your career and making choices that support your goals. Both “no” and “yes” impact your future. Respond in a way the supports your career and your relationships.