With Martin G. Moore

Episode #61

Learning to Say "No": With strength and clarity

As leaders, we are often cast in situations where we have to say “no” to people.

In this episode I give you some practical techniques for having the confidence to say “no” to virtually anyone – your team, customers, suppliers, and peers.

I’ll even touch on how to say “no” to your boss without risking the relationship, or making her feel as though you are being insubordinate.

Understanding how to say “no” without feeling as though you have let the other person down, and without carrying guilt around afterwards, is the hallmark of a strong leader.

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Episode #61 Learning to Say "No": With strength and clarity

Hey there and welcome to Episode 61 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode: Learning To Say No: Strength and clarity. As leaders, we’re often cast in situations where we have to say no. I had a great question from Stephen, one of our Leadership Beyond the Theory cohort 2 members who asked about saying no in the context of people who report to you trying to drag you down into the work that they should be doing themselves. Today, I’ll cover this and other common scenarios and give you some practical tips for how to say no without feeling as though you’ve let the other person down and without carrying guilt around afterwards. I’ll even touch on how to say no to your boss without risking the relationship or making her feel as though you are being insubordinate. So we’ll start with how to say no to your own people because sometimes that’s the toughest. I’ll then walk through a few practical ways to say no to other stakeholders, customers, suppliers and peers. And we’ll finish off by working out how to say no to your boss without risking the relationship. So let’s get into it.

Saying no to your people is never easy and for good reason. For a start, you want to help them. You want to support them. You want them to know that you’re there for them. And let’s face it, sometimes it’s just the fact that you want them to like you. So quite often it’s not just for our people that we step in to help them. What you need to do first and foremost is to look at how it serves you, when you step into help your people and ask yourself a couple of questions. First, do you need to rescue your people to feel as though you’re delivering value yourself? Does it satisfy your, ‘no one can do it as well as me’ paradigm. Are you more comfortable in doing than in leading? Are you worried they might not like you if you say no? And is it easier to avoid the conflict of having to tell someone that they are not doing their job if you just get in and do it for them?

So when people ask you for something you know you shouldn’t give them, it important that you say no the right way. Here’s a couple of scenarios. Now, first of all, sometimes people just want you to make the decisions for them so that they aren’t exposed in terms of their risk and accountability. There’s a couple of pretty straightforward ways to handle this, but it does mean that you have to be direct with your people and you have to be strong as a leader. So typically what I’d say to someone who I think is really trying to push the decision upwards that they should be owning, I say to them, “Actually that’s your job. I pay you to do that and make those types of decisions. So back to you.” Or if you want a more subtle and less direct way of saying the same thing, Jeffrey J. Fox, his line is fantastic “I don’t know, what do you think?” So push the decision making back to them.

But also let them know why it’s important that they do it themselves. So first of all, you’ve got to preserve their accountability and their empowerment over the things they have control of. They are closer to the action than you, and they have much more access to the information and expertise that are going to enable them to make a good decision. So coach them to help if they’re genuinely stuck, and the best way to do this is to ask them questions to help them work things out for themselves. So for example, “Tell me, Chris, what are the key criteria you’re using to make this decision?” Or something like, “Hey Ron, have you spoken to Genevieve about this? She’s actually an expert in this field and can give you a much better guide than I can”, or even say, “Look, if you had to make the call right now, what would you do?”, and push them to actually get their head into decision mode.

In short, there are a bunch of simple techniques where you don’t get dragged down into helping someone do their job, but you push back on them very gently and give them the information they need to make a decision without you doing it yourself. The second common scenario, which is a little more difficult sometimes that I want to cover off with employees, is when they come and ask you for a pay rise. Now saying no is a lot easier when you have a compelling reason and rationale for doing so. So you’ve got to start off with lots of questions. If someone comes to you and says, “I’m worth more money and you need to pay me more”, start with, “Well, what’s your basis for asking that?” or “What comparisons are you using to come up with that conclusion” or even better, “Do you think you’re unfairly paid at the moment?”

Now I’m going to digress just for a moment to talk about one of my little bugbears with people coming in asking for pay rises, and if you’re listening to this, please make sure that you never do it. It’s when someone comes to you after you’ve spent money and time training and developing them and then they come to you not long afterwards and say, “I have better skills now so I’m worth more money to you.” You’re kidding, right? That would never occur to me. So for example, in 2007 my company spent over a hundred thousand dollars to send me to Harvard Business School for a couple of months. And as much as it might’ve been true that it increased my value in the market, can you imagine if I came back from that experience and asked for a pay rise? What I came back with was a deep sense of gratitude and a mindset of responsibility to turn that into value for my employer who had invested heavily in me. So how you think about that stuff says a lot about who you are as a leader. Alright, end of rand.

Now, another common one that I get is, “I’ve been offered another job for more money”. This is always interesting because they’re not coming to you unless they want to bargain with you to get more money out of you to stay. Now, if you don’t have the facts, just say something like this, “I need to find out a little more about how we make these decisions. So leave it with me and I’ll get back to you before the end of the week” or something to that effect. But make sure you’re across the facts for the most obvious things you’re likely to be asked by your people and pay rises is one of those. So know how you make remuneration decisions in your company. What’s the policy? Do you use market testing and comparators? Do you have job family ranges? Or do you do compa-ratio testing? And no matter what the policy or environment is, you are always going to have to look at the equity of how someone is paid in the context of other employees in similar roles. So don’t get sucked down into the emotional side of this. If you make a bad decision, you’re going to create a precedent. You don’t actually solve the problem, and you look really weak. Understanding the impact that saying “yes” has, is normally going to turn you off the idea because what it can do is damage the respect that you have within your team as well. It’s important to understand that not giving people what they want isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So with pay decisions, it’s rare that this is the only issue and saying yes to it doesn’t always resolve what’s at the heart of the discontent. So having the strength to say no, but to take the opportunity to find out more about what’s driving one of your people’s thinking is really important. If they open the door, you have to explore!

Let’s talk about some ways that you can say no to anyone. Now just remember that “no” is much more difficult if you just use that one word. It’s much, much easier if you can lead the other person or people through your thinking so that they say no to themselves. So in other words, they understand why it has to be no from you before they actually ever hear that word. Give them the rationale. Let them in on your perspective and give them a taste of what philosophically lies behind the way you think. So here’s a few examples. A supplier or a JV partner asks for concession. A customer asks for a price reduction or additional services for no more money or a peer asks you to do something they need you to do, but it’s not consistent with your planning and objectives. With a major supplier, you’ve probably already negotiated a contract that they have to deliver on.

Now often if they’ve made poor assumptions at the start or if things go wrong on their end, they want you to wear it. Sometimes it seems like they think that you have an obligation to dig them out of whatever mess they’re in and make them whole. You have to make it clear with any supplier that you have an agreement and you expect them to live up to their side of it. Be really clear about the fact that you both went in with eyes wide open and just because it hasn’t panned out for them the way they would like, the obligation to fix it doesn’t rest with you. Make it clear what constraints you have on your ability to assist them, what demands you have from your stakeholders and what your obligations to your business are. And always come back to first principles. So for example, what drives your decision making and why isn’t it possible for you to help them?

Now, just one little watch it here. If the supplier is in a situation of distress, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. So think about the implications, if this supplier was unable to continue providing the agreed product or service, what impact would it have on your business? Because you have to factor that in as well. If they are really distressed, it will push them to take shortcuts. So work out what that means to you and how critical it is and perhaps try to find ways to help them that don’t cost you anything. First and foremost, be really clear on your boundaries, “We arrived at a deal that provides an acceptable package of service, price and risk. Any changes to that would rob value from my business” or this one of my favourites,” As much as I’d like to help you, there is no world in which I’ll just transfer wealth from my shareholders to yours.”

Working with joint venture partners is quite similar to this, but sometimes it’s even harder because you have to live with them for a long time going forward. Situations can also arise where the joint venture partner that you’re in business with can see that you’re reliant on them and their weakness creates a weakness in the joint venture and they leverage that. So just be careful about value transfers that are asked for when you don’t have any justification for giving them, but it’s really, really difficult sometimes with a key JV partner.

The customer is really interesting because we all want to please the customer and I’ve heard CEOs tell me that they go above and beyond to keep customers happy and that’s why their company’s so successful. Now this may be true, but there is always a price to pay. So doing more than you agreed to do is expensive and it erodes your profit margins.

I got to see this up close and personal in my early career in the software development industry and having customers ask for variations to what you’d originally had in the scope is really expensive and it pushes time out. All of a sudden you can think you’re doing the right thing for the customer by adding all the features that they ask for because you want to be liked and you want to give them the best product, yet eventually, they’re the ones who come back knocking on your door for liquidated damages when you don’t have the product ready at the right time that you’d agreed. It’s expensive. So here’s where you have to fall back on the first principle of any negotiation. When you’re negotiating, you need to trade value, not just give it away. So there’s never something for nothing. There’s always got to be some sort of quid pro quo.

With customers, the most important thing is to understand them and show them that you understand their issues before you just say no. So for example, “Hey, I can really appreciate the bind you are in. None of us expected the exchange rates to move so quickly. I know you’re competing in a global market and you’re trying to remain competitive.” That will just give them a sense that you actually understand the pressures they’re under and then you can go on to say something like, “However, if you look at it from our angle, we’re facing some of the same pressures and if we reduce our price now it will put pressure on our ability to deliver the quality results you need.” It’s normally true with the large customer contract that you’ve already negotiated the contract terms based on a combination of product or service for a price with a certain risk profile. It’s very common that as time goes on, the customer’s going to want something different or something more. But if you give it to them, just remember variations cost money.

The final scenario I want to talk about is when a peer comes to you to ask you for something, they might ask you to deliver something for their initiative that you hadn’t planned in. So, for example, you run the marketing department and one of the operations team come to you and they want you to plan and execute a major launch event for a new product when you hadn’t previously factored that into your plans. Now the “no” you give here isn’t always categorical. But if you do say yes, then how you say it is important and it shouldn’t be unconditional. I always love that little anonymous quote, “Poor planning on your part does not justify an emergency on mine.”

Make sure that if a peer comes to ask you for something that you really need to do. So in other words, it’s a forced yes, that you have them solve your problem for you. So once again, you’re trading here so you can say something like this, “Hey look, we can probably run this product launch in the timeframe you’re asking for, but not with our current resourcing. I’ll need to go to an external agency for a lot of the work. Are you okay if I come back to you in a few days after I’ve had a chance to explore what the cost of those additional resources is, which I expect you can provide.” So there’s always a way to say no, and if you can’t say no, say “yes, but”.

Now let’s finish off with saying no to your boss. No is tricky when you have to tell your boss or someone more senior than you and we all want to please those above us in the hierarchy. But more importantly, they want us to please them. And some bosses simply want, yes, men and women around them. I’ve worked for some where any sort of constructive challenge was seen as disloyalty rather than trying to thrash out the best possible solution for the organisation. So first, understand the nature of a request when it comes from up above. I’m constantly amazed by the number of very senior leaders who tell me that they think they’re shooting the breeze, so they’re just throwing thought bubbles out there, but their people take these as demands and go off to create a whole swag of activity behind it. Thank God my teams never enacted a lot of my thought bubbles because there would have been a lot of effort going on to do things that just didn’t have the highest value return. So if a boss asks you for something that you don’t think is the best thing, start with clarification.

So ask a question like, “Just to be clear, are you specifically intending that we do this or are you just trying to generate some ideas for us to think about?” Get that clear before you do anything else. Once you get that clear, it’s very important to walk them through the scenario that might unfold if you action their request as they’ve described it to you. So for example, I would commonly say, “If I understand you correctly, you’re asking us to do X, is that right? If we were to do that, then there would be flow on effects in other parts of the business. So I think it’s important we understand that, so there aren’t any unintended consequences. And in terms of our agreed work program for this year, how does it impact what we already have on our plates and what additional value would it bring if we were to do it?”

You want the boss to see for themselves that all the ‘nice to haves’ won’t necessarily deliver value and this is much, much easier if you have a ranked of priorities, one, two, three, four, five down to whatever, that are sorted by value. You don’t want to be a broken record on resources though. That’s a pretty blunt instrument. So for example, I hear a lot of people say to their boss, “Well, if you want me to do X, then you’re going to have to give me more people in money to do it.” Every plan you put in place should have a buffer for emergent work. However, it’s important that your bosses understand the implication of certain decisions and the tradeoffs involved. So for example, it’s a little more subtle to say “We can do project X, but it’ll mean I’ll have to draw resources from project Y and that will increase the risk of that one being delivered. Do you really want to put project Y at risk” or even better, “I found a way to deliver project X and to do so would require us to do these things and spend this money and delay this other initiative. Does that make sense given where we are?” Don’t forget though, sometimes bosses will tend to be unreasonable at times. My exec team at CS Energy knew that I would be completely unreasonable about a timeframes I expected things to happen in. When I was there, everything was too slow for me, and it should have been much faster in some areas. But oftentimes my execs simply weren’t prepared to demand the same standard performance that I would have in terms of stretching their people on delivery timeframes and quality. So I would push to have things done faster and put the onus back on them to explain why it couldn’t be done, rather than just accepting their first response about how long it would take. There’s always a pretty big contingency in place, but they had to learn how to say no to me when I pushed too hard.

So let’s wrap this all up. When you’re faced with saying no in any circumstance, there are some common elements. Give your rationale and let the person you’re saying no to in on your thinking. Demonstrate a willingness to say yes, but also have a firm rationality about why you may not be able to do so. Explain your constraints and explain the things that drive your decisions. And most importantly, let go of the need to be liked. You’ll never find it easy to say no if you’re wanting to be liked, and this is just about respect before popularity.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of Episode 61 thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. So please share the podcast with another leader whom you know will benefit. I look forward to next week’s episode because we’ve been inundated lately with so many great listener of questions, we’re going to do another Q&A with Em.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.


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