When saying no is the way to go
MBA Careers Barbara Bierach July 5th, 2016 / 07-14-2016
Difficult as it may be, saying no can be the key to effective leadership, argues Elizabeth Doty, a former lab fellow of Harvard Universitys Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and founder of consultancy Leadership Momentum.
Without the ability to politely decline when needed, you run the risk of what Doty calls “commitment drift”: eroding promises made to customers or employees to promote safety, specific values, financial discipline, or social and environmental responsibility. Saying no can therefore be the best strategy for helping the company succeed as well as living personal values.
According to Doty, the first step is to recognize some common situations that should raise a red flag:
1. You are being pushed to make a promise you can’t keep. Be realistic about what you can deliver. Rather than a blunt refusal, say “yes” in the general sense and propose alternative ways to get to the desired outcome. For example: “I really would like to say yes. But here’s the risk I see.... What if we were to try x instead?”
2. Something bothers you. People often experience nagging doubts when situations are slipping into unhealthy compromise. What is bothering you about the situation? What are the larger effects of the actions being taken? Moreover, if you feel fine, but someone you respect is hesitant, take a moment to find out what troubles them. Once you are clearer on the issue at hand, you can check the data to see if there is cause for concern.
3. You feel you have no choice. Leaders feel intense pressure to meet expectations. But fact is, we always have a choice – it just may have high stakes. It is part of our responsibility as professionals to recognize when there is something more important than a project or deadline. “Recall just one of the many people working on Deepwater Horizon who went along with the decision to cut corners, saying, 'Who cares, it’s done, it will probably be fine',” says Doty.
4. The “plan” has taken on a life of its own. Once people have committed to a direction, they naturally tend to persist, even in the face of evidence that they will fail. To counteract such momentum, leaders in aviation and other fields have developed protocols that prompt decision makers to stop and check the data again.
5. You see a dangerous trend. Scandals and catastrophes often begin as small trade-offs or compromises that add up over time. If you notice a pattern of decision-making that could undermine safety, quality, data security, customer focus, or ethics, pause for minute and reflect: Are you flirting with a tipping point?
Being prepared to act on these moments of truth makes it less likely that you will make critical decisions without giving them the attention they deserve. Doty says: “It only gets harder to speak up if you wait. And, as you practice saying no or raising questions constructively, you increase your ability to exert a positive influence on your organization.”
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Five Moments When Saying No is Your Best Strategy