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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Art of Saying No


I’m in a pretty uncomfortable situation these days. With a big team, people come to get different stuff pretty often. At the beginning you take things as they are and agree most of the time but you establish your own view very quickly.

That’s when things change.

You actually start saying no.

I mean you probably don’t want to. Well, no one really wants. It would be just easier to say yes all the time and make people happy in every situation and be such a nice guy who is always supportive and never critical. Also it would be just easier if there was peace all over the world.

The problem is it doesn’t work that way.

You, as a manager, have some budgets, goals and other big hairy things which have to be in order or your manager, VP, or whoever is up there over your head, starts yelling at you. You don’t like when others yell at you, right?

So you learn how to say no pretty quickly.

Then no, she won’t get a raise. No, he won’t transit to other project. No, they can’t get the day off now. And no, it isn’t possible to add more people to the project. It is also obvious that no, there’s no freaking chance to change the schedule. And goddamned no, we won’t recruit more people to the team. Aaargh!

Except it does matter how you say it.

There are some unhealthy patterns I notice here and there when I hear no.

  • No, because I said so. That’s the easiest one. I have the power and you don’t. It means that I can say no and you can’t do anything about that. Problem solved. Case closed. Next, please!
  • No, because my boss won’t allow me to. That’s also an easy one. I’d like to say yes, but you know, my boss won’t allow me to. It’s just oh so freaking unfair, but what can I do? I’m just a poor little manager with no authority whatsoever.
  • No, because I don’t care. Here’s my no along with some placeholder reason. I don’t really care what you think about it but since I gave you some argument I’m done here. Go cry somewhere else.
  • No, even though I tell you yes. I mean if you bought that crap than you basically asked to be tricked so it’s your fault. It’s not me who lied; it’s you who allowed to be cheated. And I just got a few months of peace.

If either of those sounds familiar than you probably are on the wrong track.

If you say no, mean it. Care enough to share real reasons standing behind the decision. What’s with decisions you weren’t allowed to make, you ask. Um, you represent the organization, you want it or not. So take this responsibility and live with it. Sometimes when the organization, whether it means your evil VP or whoever, makes the decision it is yours. Even if you don’t feel comfortable with it there are usually some well-grounded reasons behind the decision. So go convince yourself first, it will be easier later.

As long as you’re sure you’re making the right call every, even most difficult, rejection can be handled well. You will be able to ground it, you won’t fear to discuss it and you will be ready to take it on your chest. So don’t hide behind your authority or your boss. Make your call and live with its consequences.

By the way: if you’re out of luck enough to constantly live with consequences of calls you don’t agree with, you probably are in the wrong organization, but that’s completely different story.

in: communication, team management

3 comments… add one

  • x-Project Management March 25, 2011, 12:39 am

    “No, because my boss won’t allow me to. ”

    yes, this is a very magical method for me :)

    Thank for sharing!

  • Maciej Strömich March 25, 2011, 2:34 am

    First of all, great blog. I’ve been reading it for quite some time now. Keep up the good job :). OK, enough with the teasing part ;)

    Few years back, when I was newbe in managing world, VP of the company I worked for told me about William Ury series. Despite the fact that I’m not into reading psychological self-help books, two of them caught my attention. First one is “A walk from ‘no’ to ‘yes'” and the second one is “The power of possitive No”.

    Both of them show how to construct a “No sandwich” which will not destroy relation between people.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 25, 2011, 1:05 pm

    @Maciej: Thanks for words of support.

    Regarding no sandwich I’m the big fan of the approach. Maybe I’m too much into honest and straightforward communication but I believe any direct but well-grounded information, even if it is rejection, will do better in the long run than beating about the bush or even carefully building your message so it is easily accepted by the person you talk with.

    I know the risks. I was in many situations where my message seemed too straightforward and I had to add a lot of additional explanations to finally get it delivered but then it’s usually worth the effort. It also builds up my reputation as someone who is honest with people and who expects people to honest with him.

    After all if I have open-minded attitude I will always find some valuable to learn from each rejection I hear. And pretty much the same I expect from people in my team.

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