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Blogger Mike Myatt posted an interesting article entitled, Leadership – Why “Yes” is a Better Answer than “No.” Mr. Myatt serves as a leadership adviser to CEOs and boards, and is the author of "Leadership Matters . . . The CEO Survival Manual."
Mr. Myatt's article is thought-provoking. The premise of the article is that a leader should avoid using the word no, and that smart leaders create and foster cultures that use the word yes. Mr. Myatt argues that the word no ends discussions, kills creativity, stifles innovation, holds back learning, and retards initiative. He believes that the word no advances nothing, grows nothing, builds nothing, and incentivizes nothing.
I don't believe that there's anything wrong with stopping advancement, retarding growth, slowing construction, or creating disincentives—for the proper reasons. Do you want weeds to grow in your garden? Do you want your neighbor to build a hideous shed in his backyard next to your flower bed? Do you want the IT department rush to put in a system that is not fully tested? Do you want your truck drivers to violate the Hours of Service rules? There are times when, as a leader, you must set boundaries to establish what is acceptable and what is not.
From my viewpoint, a leader who only uses the word yes, or only uses the word no, is working with one hand tied behind their back. If you want to make decisions, you must be able to use the word no just as much as you use the word yes.
Are you right-handed or left-handed? So which one is the correct hand? Let's add some context to that question. Which hand holds the fork and which one holds the knife? Wait a minute; you are now in Europe. Now answer the question. You must understand context, and that requires conversation, which Mr. Myatt refers to in his article as, "a tremendous amount of reasoned dialog." I think that using either word too quickly leads to trouble, and the leader who is quick to draw either one is going to create trouble.
People actually have a problem saying the word no. I once worked with a manager who fully believed that all answers should be yes. He had different shades of the word yes, and unless you were fully aware that the man never said no, his shaded yeses could get you into deep trouble. His team would sometimes spend hours negotiating amongst themselves when faced with opposing questions to which he answered yes. As a peer manager, I learned to teach my team to respond to his yes answers with, "Do you really mean yes?"
You would think that a salesman would want to hear the word yes. Countless sales training classes teach salespeople to ask a series of questions to which the only answer is yes. However, I learned a long time ago that in negotiations it was better to hear the word no early in the process. A fast yes never told you what was going to be off-limits or unacceptable to the other party. When the other side of the table said no to a request, they clearly drew a boundary line. With a no, I could quickly learn where the point of discomfort was. A no answer gave me something to work with, and I could start asking questions to learn the reason behind the no.
If I had my choice, I'd rather have a leader who is comfortable using the word no than a leader who always says yes.
"Do you wish to maintain the status quo?"
"Is a 12% shrink factor acceptable?"
If your goal is to challenge, probe, assess, validate, or confront, then the word yes is a weaker answer. Much more powerful words are why, what, how, when, where, and who.
What is your thought process? How did you arrive at this answer? What is your logic on this? Who influenced your arrival at this conclusion? Why is it difficult for me to understand how this aligns with our mission? How does this get us to where we’re going? What happens when things don't go according to plan?
Mario Puzo's novel, "The Godfather," contains a great lesson about how artfully to use the word no. Don't let your morality cloud your judgment. As a leader and strategist, Don Vito Corleone did not achieve his position in life because he was a bad leader. People revered the Don for his ability to reason with unreasonable people. It seemed like he never said no to anyone's request, and nobody ever said no to the Don. The trouble began only when he had to say no, even though he said it in the kindest possible way, to someone who had no intention of allowing the Don to make that decision.
Quoting directly from the book, pages 403 and 404:
Tom finished his drink, and before he left he gave Michael a mild reproof. "You're nearly as good as your father," he told Michael. "But there's one thing you still have to learn."
"What's that?" Michael said politely.
"How to say no," Hagan answered.
When Hagan had left, Michael said jokingly to his father, “So you taught me everything else. Tell me how to say no to people in a way they'll like.”
The Don moved to sit behind the big desk. “You cannot say ‘no’ to the people you love, not often. That's the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a ‘yes.’ Or you have to make them say no. You have to take time and trouble. But I'm old-fashioned, you're the new modern generation, don't listen to me."
As a leader, I find that every interaction is a negotiation. I've learned to expect resistance disguised with affirmative expression, people saying yes when all along they really mean no. When I make a request, whether it is to a subordinate or to a client, I always invite the rejection. Inviting the rejection removes the fear of losing face. Inviting the rejection forces the other person to employ reason; they must engage critical thinking and ask themselves, "Why do I think I should say yes?"
Please feel free to reject my argument. I believe, however, that if you think this process through, you will find that your most painful experiences, those that caused you angst, are the product of one time when someone said yes when they should have said no.
Examples? How about Enron and Arthur Andersen? At what point should Ken Lay have started to say no? At what point should David Duncan and Nancy Temple have said no?
Nietzsche writes about the rights and responsibilities of the sovereign man. One of those rights and responsibilities is the ability to make a promise. As I shared with the artilce, The Power of Saying, "No", leaders must be able to say no in order to have the freedom and sovereignty to say yes. Only that freedom enables a leader to make a promise he can keep.