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NO! The One Word You Need to Master to Excel as a Leader

Throughout my previous career in the banking industry, my working week used to comprise of being in meetings over 50% of my time. By ‘my time’, I mean regular 12-hour days. Unfortunately, only 25% of those meetings would be important, useful, require my presence, on time, or ran efficiently. Another 25% would be important but poorly ran, and the other 50% were meetings where I was on the invite list and felt obligated to attend. Then I was promoted to a more senior role, and suddenly had the realisation that I could just hit the decline button and nobody would question me.

That was the day my working life changed.

In most large corporations, we spend our lives being a ‘yes man’, too afraid to say no to those more senior than us, despite the negative impact it might have on us. As humans, we’re conditioned to say yes from an early age. First to our parents, then to our teachers, and finally to our employers. Yet, why do so many of us feel like we can’t say no. Is it really as bad as what it seems?

“The customer is always right”

“Yes boss, I agree”

“I’m busy but I’ll find some time”

“Yes, we can do it by close of business”

“Sure, I’ll be happy to attend your meeting”

The above are some scenarios you might have encountered yourself, where you felt obliged to say yes. Effective leaders know how to manage their time well, and to do this they know how, and when, to say no. You can’t just say no in the same way you did as a moody teenager, it needs to be constructive and be accompanied with a reason or justification. Here are some areas where it’s ok to say no.

Meetings that you have no need to be in

How many of us turn up to meetings just because the invite arrived in our inbox? If you doubt why you are needed, there is nothing wrong with questioning the meeting organiser why they invited you. In my experience, most are happy to receive the candid feedback, and either provide a valid explanation or excuse you from the meeting.

Extra work that you have no capacity for

Many of us love to say yes to taking on extra work as it proves our value, or ability to absorb more work. This is backward thinking, and took me about 10 years of my career to realise this and do something about it. The danger of just saying yes, when you’re already working 12-hour days, is that the stuff you’re already working on will suffer. It will mean less time spent on each item, and increases the risk of errors. First thing to do is make sure you’re working efficiently (hint: most of us aren’t but that’s a separate post), and then respectfully push back on the extra work with a suggestion of how it can be completed. Either you need to give something up, or the work needs to go to someone else.

Work that isn’t your responsibility

All too often, we end up doing work that doesn’t fall under our responsibility just because someone asked. Yet, most of the time you’re asked because the other person isn’t sure who the correct person is, but you just sound the closest. Just because someone asks, and the work is similar to what you do, doesn’t mean you have to say yes. Say no, but see if you can help better direct the person making the request.

Deadlines you can’t meet

‘Tight deadlines’ is one of the biggest causes of stress that I hear about during my workshops. Sometimes they are unavoidable and just part of the job, however they are usually times when you can just say no. As mentioned above, give justification why you can’t meet a proposed deadline, and provide an alternate one that you can confidently meet. Sometimes, managers give tight deadlines due to pressure from above, but they are unaware of other constraints you’re currently under. Unless you speak up, they will assume that you can handle it.

The key here is knowing when to say no, and it not having a negative effect on the business. Ensure you provide clear, rational explanations as to why you’re saying no and try to provide alternate suggestions where possible.

You might be surprised at just how much better your working life becomes.

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