Have you ever worked for a boss who always said no? If you have, my first guess is it was a frustrating experience. My second guess is you don’t hold said boss in high regard as a leader. I’ve always been amazed at the number of well-known axioms espousing the benefits of learning to use the word “no” with greater frequency. In fact, there are some very bright people who believe you simply cannot become a good leader without developing a mastery for using the word no – I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve never been a big fan of telling people no, but I’m a huge proponent of the advantages of helping people learn how to get to a yes. Smart leadership creates an environment where yes is not viewed as a weakness, but as an opportunity.
While inherently obvious, it should not go unnoticed that the use of the word no is 100% negative. The word no ends discussions, stifles creativity, kills innovation, impedes learning, and gates initiative. Put simply, the word no advances nothing, grows nothing, builds nothing and incentivizes nothing. No is not all it’s cracked-up to be. Smart leaders create and foster a culture of “yes” rather than use “no” as a tactical weapon just because they can.
Unless accompanied by a tremendous amount of reasoned dialog, the use of “no” is rarely informative, much less instructive. Most leaders simply don’t take the time to have the needed conversation surrounding a no. Moreover, when those conversations do occur they tend to be focused on admonishment rather than teachable moments. Teaching someone how to get to a yes is one of the most valuable things a leader can do. It was Sir Richard Branson who said: “I have enjoyed life a lot more by saying yes than by saying no.” Saying yes is both valuable and fun, so why not learn how to help people to a yes?
As a leader you should challenge, probe, assess, validate, and even confront on a regular basis. By all means ask people to justify their logic. It’s perfectly okay to ask “Why should I say yes to this?” and it’s even more okay to expect a good answer. Make sure however that when you send a person back to the drawing board it’s a teaching exercise and not a death sentence.
By helping people refine their thinking you’re in essence clarifying your expectations, developing them in the process, and advancing the ball at the same time – this is simply good leadership. Where leadership is concerned, a slow “yes” is often more instructive, and ultimately much more productive than a fast “no.” When you’re tempted to give a no as your answer, stop and ask some of the following questions first – you’ll be glad you did:
Before I give you an answer, I’d like to know more about your thought process here. Can you tell me more about how you arrived at this point?
Let’s peel back the layers on this issue a bit – can you help me better understand your logic on this?
That’s an interesting idea – who else is onboard with this?
I’m not sure I understand how this aligns with our current direction. How does this add value to our core mission?
Help me connect the dots on this one – why will this take us where we want to go?
Have you identified all the risks here, and what are your contingency plans should things not progress as expected?
What’s the downside should we not move forward with this?
Ask yourself this question – If as a leader you find yourself always saying no, what does that tell you about your leadership ability? It means your vision is not understood, your team is not aligned, and your talent is not performing up to par. It means you’re not teaching, mentoring, communicating, or leading. The perception that strong leaders say no and weak leaders say yes is simply flawed thinking. Leaders need to communicate trust in their team – they need to create an environment where people are not afraid to seek opportunity, to pursue innovation, or to change their mind. A constant stream of “no’s” is not a positive sign, it’s a warning sign that needs to be heeded.
I have found that the most common reasons people tend to cite in support of using no are as follows:
Excuse: It helps to keep them from wasting time – Reality: For a leader to believe their time is somehow more important than other’s time is usually not correct and is often the height of arrogance.
Excuse: It somehow manages risk – Reality: A quick no often keeps opportunities hidden, creates information deficits, and causes blind spots – all of which actually increase the potential for risk.
Excuse: It builds character – Reality: While its true adversity builds character, so does empathy and understanding. Life brings about enough adversity on its own – leaders who manufacture it as a teaching method have missed the point.
Excuse: It helps them focus by not biting off more than they can chew –Reality: if your only way to prioritize is by saying no, then you are missing out on a lot of what life has to offer. Rather than prioritize by exclusion, use systems, processes, etc., to prioritize by inclusion.
While saying no might be more convenient, the aforementioned agendas are better accomplished with clear communication, effective collaboration, and prudent resourcing – not by saying no. Great leaders help people get to a yes – in other words, they teach them how not to receive a no. Rather than just kill something with a quick no, a good leader uses every adverse scenario as a development opportunity to help people advance their critical thinking and decisioning skills. The word yes is a catalyst – it begins rather than ends. It inspires rather than demoralizes, and it communicates trust rather than doubt.
In the link to the following video, Google’s Eric Schmidt shares his reasoning for creating a culture of yes. Schmidt stresses the importance of not creating a negative culture, but instead, fostering a scalable culture which focuses on optimism and not pessimism. I have always believed if you want to bring out the best in people, give them the opportunity to succeed – the best way to do this is to begin with the assumption they won’t fail. If you’ve hired smart people, trust they’ll do the right thing rather than fear they’ll do the wrong thing.
While I understand that there are times when using no may be your only option, those times should be the exception and not the rule. It’s also important to note that the use of “yes” and “no” are neither universally right or wrong, but there is much greater upside to enabling a yes. Think of it like this: Yes paves the path toward the future, while no affirms the status quo. Bottom line: Yes is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of intelligent leadership. Next time you’re tempted to say no, do yourself a big favor and find a way to work around the obstacle and toward a yes.
Mike Myatt is a leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs and their Board of Directors. Widely regarded as America’s Top CEO Coach, he is recognized by Thinkers50 as a global authority on leadership. He is the bestselling author of Hacking Leadership and Leadership Matters, and a Forbes leadership columnist.