Leadership Tip #3: Use No As a Complete Sentence

Have you ever noticed that other people want you to do “more” work? The work has risk—if you say yes to this work, you'll put every other deliverable at risk. What do you say?

You can address this request with a simple sentence:

No.

That's it.

No.

It's a complete sentence.

I bet you feel uncomfortable saying No. You have alternative words. See Saying No to More Work for words and see the follow-on series Visualize Your Work So You Can Say No. (I wrote more about No words in Manage It! and Manage Your Project Portfolio.)

However, this post is about how you manage your feelings. Once you understand your feelings, you can choose your actions.

When I work with people, teams, and various leaders in the organization, almost everyone objects to No as a complete sentence. They ask:

Don't I have to give a reason? Doesn't the requestor need a reason, an explanation?

No.

Doesn't someone need to do this work? Doesn't this work need to get done?

Maybe.

What if I want to do this work and not my regular work?

That's an interesting question.

Let me start with the “do I have to offer a reason” question.

You Don't Need to Offer a Reason

When someone asks you to do work, you don't need to offer a reason. You certainly don't need to apologize. You can say:

  • No.
  • Sometimes, I say, “No, that doesn't fit for me.”

You might want to avoid the maniacal laugh and say, “NOOOO!” while wiping tears from your eyes.

Or you might use the maniacal laugh. Sometimes, people backed out of my office when I laughed like that.

If you are doing the most important work, and you cannot take on any more work, say, “No.” That's it.

You don't need to offer explanations or reasons. Offer a firm, strong “No.”

What if someone asks, “Why not?”

You might say, “This is the most important and valuable work I have right now. The work you're asking me/my team/my project/my department to do is less valuable.”

But what if the work is valuable? And that you're worried someone does need to do this work?

Does Someone Need to Do This Work?

When I work with leaders about how to say No, they often say:

But someone needs to do this work, right? Even if it's not me?

It's possible someone does need to do this work. However, I often ask these questions:

  • Which team is best suited to do this work?
  • What else is that team doing?
  • Is that work more or less important than this new request?

You've noticed I focus on teams. That's because teams that learn together often create faster and better solutions than anyone working alone. The team doesn't have to be a feature- or product-based team. The team might be a management team, as in Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization.

If some team should do the work, it's time to rank this work. Is it more important (not urgent) than the other work you're doing? That's where value enters the picture.

Use Value to Decide About All the Work

How can you learn if this work is more important? Use value to decide.

Compare the value of your current work and compare that value to the requested work. Instead of adding work to your never-ending list of work to do, consider these questions. Should you or your team:

  • Stop the work you're currently doing the work you're doing now and transition to the new work?
  • Finish the current item, even though the larger work item isn't done. Then stop that overall work, and transition to the new work?
  • Ask a different team to take this new work because they are working on less valuable work?

(Read Manage Your Project Portfolio to see the various discussions about ranking by value and what to do with less-valuable projects. If this is “just” a backlog item, the same ideas apply. And I have a discussion in Create Your Successful Agile Project about backlog items.)

I often discover the value discussion illuminates how to create better choices—about the work and the people who could do the work.

Now comes the tricky question: What if you want to do this new work?

You Prefer to Do the New Work

I see two common instances of preferences for the new work:

  • Doing this work offers you a chance to consider a new role that you want. (At any level.)
  • You've been a manager for a while and you're frustrated with management work. You decide you would like to do this technical work.

(Do you see other instances? I feel as if I'm missing a third important option here. Sigh.)

Work that gets you to a new role? That's exciting. Who will take over your work—or is your current work not valuable enough? If the new work is more valuable, go for it. And let people know you are not doing the original work.

What if you're a manager and this work is technical? I would say you need to decide—are you a manager or a technical person? I don't know how many people you can manage and still do technical work. My maximum was three people. However, you might be smarter/more capable than I was. (I discussed this in detail in Practical Ways to Manage Yourself.)

Use caution if you want to escape your management work with technical work. Maybe management isn't a good role for you anymore.

What If the Work is Urgent?

Let's discuss the idea of important vs. urgent. In my experience, urgent problems often arise because we didn't do important work. We now have a crisis/disaster/something looming. (You might want to review Eisenhower's matrix or Covey's four quadrants.)

If you have an urgent problem, such as an outage, sure, that's worth dropping everything. However, if it's that urgent, use a team to find, fix, and future-proof the problem.

What if someone says, “This is urgent.” Use the value questions and ask if this particular piece of work is more valuable than the other work you're doing.

If the work isn't more valuable than the work you're doing now, say, “No.”

No Is a Complete Sentence.

I recommend you say No and stop talking. You might learn from what the person says next.

When you stop talking, the other person might fill the space with words that might help you learn what their concerns are. When I stopped talking, the other person often told me about the risks they were trying to manage.

Most of the time, they hadn't said no to less valuable work. However, sometimes, they really had problems determining which was most valuable. When I walked them through the kanban board in the Visualize Your Work So You Can Say No, we could have a reasonable conversation.

That's why No is a complete sentence.

No can save your proverbial tush. If you commit to too much work, you can't deliver any or all of it. A No might seem cruel, but when you say it with firmness, people can see you act from the best possible motives.

No requires that you exercise your leadership. If you're a manager, you will need to learn to say No. When I say No to less important work, I lead myself and anyone else I'm responsible to. That leadership has always led to better outcomes. I hope you do, too.

Remember: No is a complete sentence. Say it. No.

This is a part of the series of leadership tips.

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