When Managers Can’t Hear No

I recently wrote an article on how to say,  No: Such a Difficult Word, and a twitter follower wanted to know what to do when your manager can’t hear no.

First, understand why your manager can’t hear no.

  1. Is it because the business pressures are so great that the cost of saying no seems insurmountable? Managers are people too, and if the cost seems overwhelming, it may be that your manager can’t see how to make small steps that ease the problem.
  2. Is it because your manager only thinks you and he/she are working when emergencies exist? If your work is invisible, use the project portfolio to make it visible.
  3. Is it because no one else says no? Other people may not know how. You might be the first.
  4. Is it because he/she does not believe you? Oh boy.

Once you understand why a manager can’t hear no, you can choose how to act. For the first three reasons, your manager may not know about how to or is not willing to manage the project portfolio. In that case, you can manage your project portfolio.

Gather all your work into your project portfolio. Break your tasks into small chunks, so you can complete something in a morning or an afternoon. If you finish some task, can you get to a wait state on that project, waiting for others to get back to you?

If so, you can repeat, ranking and reranking as you proceed. It’s better to have a one-on-one with your manager and make sure you are working on the most important work. If your manager cannot help you rank, don’t worry. Show your manager that it’s possible to make a decision, make some progress, and then re-evaluate that decision based on more data.

If your manager doesn’t believe you, you may have a different problem. Is it a case of Queen of Denial, or is it something more basic, such as lack of trust? If it’s the schedule game, eventually your manager will encounter reality. If it’s lack of trust, that’s another whole problem and another blog post.

Most managers can’t hear no if they literally cannot imagine how to work themselves out from under the pile of work. Show them.

3 Replies to “When Managers Can’t Hear No”

  1. Could you please expand on “If your work is invisible, use the project portfolio to make it visible”? I always say that a good project manager makes a project look easy. So it’s easy for people to underestimate how much “behind the scenes” work went on. So much of my work IS invisible is done well…

  2. Great question, I look forward to other comments. Effective PM is persuasive — as contributor groups learn to avoid kinks, those issues *seem to* stop. PM has a lot in common with superb craftmanship, in which the amount and types of work required to produce a wonderful piece — jewelry, sculpture, furniture, … — are not at all apparent in the finished work and even seem unnecessary to critics looking at a work in progress.

  3. I’d like to add to the comment re: visiblity of project work. At the heart of it, PMs are and have to be sales people. This is particularly true in tough business environment where anything and everything is scrutinzed.

    So when a “management” decision has to be made because of resource issues (i.e. budget), the project that is “saved” is often the one that has the most visibility or the one that had a lot of “air-time” with the decision makers. That’s good stakeholder engagement.

    It’s true that many excellent PMs are the get-it-done types and execute wonderfully under difficult constraints and with little appreciation. Part of that is because the people who should know, don’t know and that’s not necessarily their fault if the PM hasn’t spoken up.

    Now more than ever, PMs need to defend their project as either revenue producting or productivity enhancing. That means more explanation and story telling to make the folks understand it’s one or the other and the wonderful work that your project team is doing “behind the scenes”. Not surprisingly, senior stakeholders do care and want to know if it’s presented in a way that speaks to the bottom line.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.