In my years working in different organizations and seeing people react to some of the things I trained, I am often amazed at how strong the reaction is when I tell them they need to say “No”. Why is that so hard? It’s a simple word. It takes very little effort to form the word and actually say it, but it apparently takes a great deal of emotional effort to say. So, I understand, saying “No” is hard. I want to share some of the things I have observed about it before I write about how “No” helps you and others create and maintain your individual sustainability.
Without an exception, every person I worked with in every agile transformation, class, or coaching wanted to help people get what they wanted. They all wanted their organizations to be successful. One of the consequences of this pursuit to help or improve conditions was the belief that “No” was mean. For some reason, telling a customer, or a leader in their organization “No” had come to be seen as rude or unprofessional. It was mostly unspoken, until I brought it up in a conversation or in a class. Then, the reaction to my question or comment such as “Why don’t you just say No?” was almost violent revulsion or at least panic. Before I was a consultant and I provided value to my customers in the form of software, we avoided, at all costs, saying “No”. Even when we all knew it was the correct answer.
“No” has become such a bad word that some people and organizations don’t even allow the word to be uttered. It is not just mean, it’s forbidden. In their world, there has to be another option. I have watched engineer and project leaders twist themselves into uncomfortable shapes to avoid saying “No”. I have met and worked with leaders who refused to even hear the word. If there was any indication that the answer was “No”, they would shut down.
In some extreme cases, organizations and leaders have even allowed the impression to propagate that “No” means you are bad at your job, lazy, or incompetent. The perception that has grown in these situations is that there is always an answer. Obviously you have not looked hard enough. Just look closer, be smarter, try harder and you can solve anything.
These three examples are not the only ones I have experienced, but they are indicative of the way “No” is treated. You may have your own examples to share and at this point you may be saying I’m not being fair. I have not given appropriate consideration to the context of these situations. I am using these as extreme examples, but the problem with “No” starts innocently enough, until an entire organization cannot imagine saying “No”. The reality is that “No” is a very important word that we need to bring back. Here are a few examples of why.
“No” is real. Sometimes it “is” the answer. Of course there are other options, but in some cases the time, cost, or capability boundarys set have eliminated them. The people who know have taken the options, weighed them, and the answer actually is “No”. It is never easy for them to say “No”. They know there will be disappointment associated with it. However it is the honest answer and it has to be considered. It does not mean never. In fact, “No” can open the door to what needs to happen to those constraints to get to “Maybe”, or even “Yes”. To remove “No” from our vocabulary entirely requires people to lie to each other. Not being able to say “No” ends conversation and problem solving. Taking away “No” stops collaboration.
Regrettably, we, people, don’t prioritize well. How do I know this? What is my evidence? Years of experience helping people figure out how to get the most important work done. Numerous best selling books that talk about how to organize your work to get things done. Several people making large amounts of money talking to people about managing their time. These are all signs that we are challenged with prioritizing. “No” turns out to be a great tool for solving this challenge. It forces the conversation because it instantly requires a choice. If the queue is already full, and we need to add something to the queue, the answer is “No” unless something is removed from the queue. This is true no matter the system you are looking at. By the way, whether you actually say “No” or not, the outcome of adding something to the queue will be the same. Only the most important things will get done. “No” helps to make the state of the system transparent. “No” highlights the required trade-offs that must be made. “No” actually helps those doing the work to remove some of the emotional irritation that comes from not being able to tell the truth.
Perhaps you reacted earlier when I wrote that not saying “No” causes people to lie, or when I highlighted people are not telling the truth. We don’t like to be told when we are being dishonest, but people are lying every day to avoid conflict or preserve feelings. The problem with these gentle lies is that they destroy trust. By being honest about what you can and cannot do, you create reliability. Amazingly, when people can count on your word, they trust you. “No” builds trust.
A system (don’t forget that a person can be considered a system) must be reliable to be sustainable. In order for something to be repeatable, you must know its limits. You must know what can be done (Yes) and what cannot be done (No). You as an individual have limits. If you are always pushing those limits, forcing yourself to work beyond what you know you can do, lying to everyone about what is possible, you are not working in a sustainable way.
I can hear the argument already. You say, “People have to push their limits to grow.” That is a valid argument. Of course people and systems have to push their boundaries. However, even as we argue this point, you know that there is a limit to how long a system and a person can maintain operation at maximum capacity. Allow the system to push its boundary and grow beyond it. But, once it has reached that new level of capability, it must be allowed to work at that level until it stabilizes and can maintain it. In some cases it will not be able to sustain, and will fall back to the previous level. Systems(people) pushed to their maximum capacity with no chance to rest or relax will burn out. Challenge yourself to grow. Work to sustain that level of capability. This is a healthy system that advances. Continuous pressure breaks the system.
Bring “No” back to your conversations. It is okay to say “No”. It will spark discussion of what can be true. It will create priority. It will increase trust. It will create the sustainable pace and life you need. Learn to say “No” when the queue is full.