The Power of 'No'

  • by , Featured Contributor, March 18, 2010

Simple words can be very powerful. One of the most important tools a worker in the media and marketing world has is the power to say "no." Learning how and when to use the word is a vital lesson. This is true whether you are in sales, client service or product development. It's particularly true in start-up companies, where resources are scarce, historical guidance is short, and making too many promises is devastatingly more dangerous than making too few.

In my experience over the past two decades in the media and marketing world, I have found that the more I empower my teams to say "no" when it is appropriate -- respectfully, of course -- to prospects, clients, vendors, or each other, the better they can get their jobs done.

It's quite natural that we want to please everyone when we can. But, we can't. And most people figure that fact out over time -- certainly the successful ones do. However, many people still try to make as many people happy as long as they can, to the point that they never make any of them as happy as they could -- and make some unhappy. Those situations call for using the word "no" early and often. Giving your teams the power to use the word "no" freely and at their discretion is one of the most important ways that you can enable them. Here are more reasons why:



Empowering. The more you push yes/no decision-making down in organizations, the more empowered you make those teams, and the faster you separate good team members from the great, and identify the mediocre ones who are slowing you down.

Forces prioritization. If you give your folks broad powers to say yes and no, you also need to give them strong guidance for how and when you use it. Leaders need to be clear and explicit about the organization's goals and objectives, and need to provide clear prioritization.

Making inevitable decisions today. Saying "no" early, when an organization is going down a less-than-ideal path with a client or partner, is critical, since it is so easy sometimes to let things go until everyone finally realizes that things won't work out how they had hoped. Thus, enabling folks to "make inevitable decisions today" and say "no" at the start of the process -- not the end -- can save everyone.

Better sales. Too many people think that sales is all about saying yes to what prospective clients want and are willing to pay for, and then finding some way to deliver it later. My experience has been the opposite. All of my best salespeople have been those who are upfront with prospective clients at the outset and liberally use the word "no." That's how you best set expectations with clients and best set your company up for a successful engagement. The transparency that comes from saying "no" early can build the long-term trust that a poorly thought-out "yes" will certainly destroy.

Better products. When dealing with clients or prospective clients, great product managers (just like sales) ask questions, listen, and say "no" when they're asked to deliver products or prices or terms that aren't tightly aligned with their business' goals and priorities. Saying yes to off-strategy requirements leads to customization in product and service, and poor scalability. As they say, customization kills!

Better use of time.  Time is a critical asset. You can't meet everyone. You can't talk to everyone. You can't solve everyone's problems. No one has that much time. In fact, these days you can't even respond to everyone's requests for you time. Email, Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In have made it too easy for everybody to reach out to you. You have to learn to say no, and you have to learn to say it early and often.  If you don't, you will lose sight of your priorities and you won't meet your existing obligations. My rule, when someone requests some of my time, is to ask myself if the 15 or 30 minutes that it would require is worth spending that much time less with my wife and five and six-year-old girls. It is a very high bar!

Of course, saying "no" as a de facto response to anything or anyone new, or saying it randomly, arrogantly, or with a lack of respect for the recipient, can be worse than not saying it.  "No" is a powerful tool, and can be -- and frequently is -- terribly misused sometimes. It's critical that you know what you want to say "no" to, and why. It's critical that you are polite and respectful in saying something that your recipient may not like.

What do you think about the power of "no"?

4 comments about "The Power of 'No'".
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  1. Ginger Dodds from Shaker Recruitment Advertising & Communications, March 18, 2010 at 3:52 p.m.

    Thanks, Dave, for this blog post. Your point about trying to please everyone is right on... you will never be able to please everyone all the time, so it is crucial that we learn to say NO. And, it is important for a number of reasons. First, say NO if you know something isn't the right fit for your customer. Or if something just can not be done in the timeframe provided. Be honest with them. They'll appreciate it later. Second, say NO to additional work you won't be able to take on. This is especially important now, when downsizing has forced a number of workers to take on duties previously performed by other staff. Look at the tasks you are performing... are they really essential? Taking on more than you can handle is worse than simply saying NO.

  2. Lorea Canales from none, March 18, 2010 at 3:59 p.m.

    Why is the word yes so brief?
    It should be
    the longest,
    so that you could not decide in an instant to say it,
    so that upon reflection you could stop
    in the middle of saying it.

    Vera Pavlova

  3. Jennifer Nugent from JNA Advertising, March 18, 2010 at 4:34 p.m.

    Loved the title - I wrote a short piece with the same title (unpublished) when I was at a previous agency, trying to empower our account service team to feel strong enough to say "No", to work as a client partner, to lead them, to make sure we're providing the right solution, not just fulfilling a request without considering alternatives.
    Interestingly enough, my department head at the time freaked out and put the kibosh on my little essay. Some people just fear the discourse and conversation so much, they choose avoidance. To be able to truly service your business, and excel at it? Doesn't mean always saying "Yes".... Thanks for putting this out there.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 18, 2010 at 4:51 p.m.

    Very, very true. Although sometimes, a short explanation of why not will quell the fires of the no'ed and perhaps allow improvement on the idea or squash it completely unfettered.

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