Why You Must Learn to Say NO.

There was a great book written by William Ury and Roger Fisher titled “Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In.” It’s one of those books that tends to find its way into business school classrooms and even boardrooms around the world. While its first edition was written way back in 1981, it’s stood the test of time, seeing several updates over the last three decades.

The book teaches professionals how to get what they want, whether it’s a raise, time off, a transfer, or more or less responsibility. The whole goal is, of course, to get to ‘yes.’ But, playing devil’s advocate for a moment, we have to consider something: what if it’s not that professionals are learning increasingly creative and persuasive ways to get to yes? What if, instead, those in the position to decide have an inability to say no?

The truth is, a great many executives, especially CEOs (believe it or not) have a problem saying no. Whether they’ll admit to it or not, it’s often easier to say yes than to hurt feelings, risk backlash, or forego an opportunity. But, always saying yes can also have dire consequences.

According to a recent article by First Round Review, it’s possible that as much as 70% of a CEOs time is misspent, and a significant factor is the inability to say no. It goes on to say that “[CEOs] know they should be using every hour to move their companies forward, create great products, close deals and hire the best candidates. Many just can’t find the time.” If you don’t have the time for these critical initiatives, it’s time for a change.

So, here are some tactics designed to help you ‘get to no’:

  • Identify your priorities, daily. You may already do this (or think you do this), but you should be doing so in such a way, you’re clear that anything that does not touch those 4 or 5 things, does not get added to your list. So, if you know you will be dealing with budgets, a new hire, a policy rewrite, a management meeting, and a new client luncheon today, anything not having to do with these priorities should not become new ones for today.

  • Create a strategy for responses. You may call these templates or pat-answers, but you need to identify at least the common topics you’re often approached about, and create a standard answer for them. For instance, you should have a ‘no, thank you’ email or script ready for social invites, one for networking opportunities or connection/referral requests, and one for sponsorships, just to name a few. Craft a polite and respectable response and send it, without delay when one of these makes its way to your desk.

  • Identify your backups. There will be times when people need answers from real people, and you simply can’t afford to spend your time providing them. In these cases, you need to have a list of appropriate contacts who are aware of their responsibility, to which you can send people for answers when the need arises.

  • Be firm, but polite. Maybe most important…you must be firm. You cannot leave wiggle room for people, or they will take advantage. Keep it very short and to the point, while making it clear that the request is just not an option at this point in time. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t at this time” or “I wish I help, but I have prior commitments” are great examples of this approach.

A wonderful way to look at the up-side of saying no is how Steve Jobs viewed it: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”