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Saying ‘No’; an essential leadership skill


 The last blog post explored the importance for managers and leaders in having a ‘stop-doing’ list; a pre-requisite for anyone concerned with achieving greater personal effectiveness or organisational success. Closely related to getting good at stopping doing things is to become fluent at using the word ‘NO’!

A large number of people tell me that “in their world you can’t possibly say no”. When I think I can get away with it (and sometimes even when I can’t!), I like to tease them by saying that in my view they are already very good at saying “no”. Each time they say “yes” to another piece of work that will keep them in the office over the weekend or through the night, they are in effect saying “no” to time with their partners, families or personal lives. The point that many of us tend to overlook is that every “yes” is linked to a corresponding “no”. There is always a choice. Choosing one course of action prevents us from taking another.

Observing how someone spends their time over an extended period does, I believe, shows us where their priorities lie. It tells us ultimately what they value most. While a partner in a law firm may say that her children are the most important thing in her life, if she works throughout her children’s early years and rarely sees them, her actions seem to tell a different story. Similarly many businesses claim that their people are their most important asset, yet their habit of pulling staff out of training events and cancelling their appraisals undermines such a claim. 

Exploring these ideas with people often generates discomfort, plus some reluctance on their part to accept them. First it puts the responsibility for their lives squarely at their own door, forcing them to acknowledge the part they play in creating their circumstances. Second, it confronts them with the need to communicate a message that is likely to disappoint the other person. For many people this is profoundly uncomfortable. While they may justify their saying “yes” habit as “just wanting to be helpful”, deeper exploration often reveals a profound dis-ease with being anything other than compliant. 

It is therefore reasonable to conclude that saying “no” is an essential means for both protecting what we value most, and for demonstrating to others in our organisation where our priorities lie. To put it simply, it is an core leadership skill; a skill that for most people demands real discipline and effort to use. For many people looking for a focus for their leadership development, this is a great place to start.   

Next time: how to say “no” without losing out

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