Entrepreneurs and small business owners are usually optimists by nature. After all, they started or have built a company. But you might have the tendency in startups and smaller companies to say yes too often which can be a bad habit since it may result in wasted time, becoming over-committed, losing focus and getting burnt out. At the end, you might make poor decisions and the business might suffer due to lack of resources or simply a lack of focus. What’s the solution? You might need to say ‘No’ more often.
Learning how to say ‘NO’ may be one of the hardest things to actually say. So, you need to practice it and also change your mindset. This change starts by understanding that NO is not a negative two-letter word. However, it is a way that helps you stay on the course and be more focused to leverage your limited resources. The best way to perhaps look at the positivity of NO is to share a quote from Steve Jobs from an Apple Conference in 1997.
‘People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.’ Steve Jobs
So, how do you learn to say no? The key first step is to evaluate what is being asked. If there simply is not enough information or the ask is ambiguous or ill-defined, then you can then ask for more details or insight. In this way you are engaging with the other person and sincerely want to learn more but you are not yet saying yes. Now, it is incumbent on the requestor to clarify the request. Based on getting more information, you can then make your decision. In this way you will develop a reputation of being thorough and clear.
Here is a simple yet effective way of evaluating requests in an escalation manner through the three levels of possible NO’s.
Level One: This level might actually be the easiest one to understand for both parties. If the ask involves the violation of policies, regulations or even a law, then you simply give a straight no. Here is what you say, ‘I don’t have any discretion here. Your request violates our policies, the rules or even the law. Perhaps I can help you reframe your request within the rules so that it can then be considered.’
Level Two: This evaluation of a NO can also be quite straightforward. Let’s say you get a request that is outside your skillset or expertise. If the request is not even feasible, you say, ‘I simply can’t do it.’ If you just don’t have the skills or expertise to deliver on it, then you say, ‘Sorry, that’s outside my skill set or expertise.’ But what if the requestor presses you to acquire the skillsets? The answer still might be no. But your answer could be framed this way, ‘This is not within my skillset. That said, if you can accept that I’d need extra time or financial resources to climb a learning curve, then I’ll try.” It could be a growth opportunity for you and, in the end, give the requester a new go-to person (you) on this sort of project. What if, however, you really do not have any additional time to spare? What’s the best way to respond? ‘I’m already committed to other responsibilities and projects. I’d love to do this for you at a later time. If that’s not possible, I’d love to be of service somehow in the future.’
Level Three: This level can be the trickiest because the real potential of what is being asked might have some real merit. In this case, you need to make a judgment call on the likelihood of your success, on the potential return on investment, and on fit with you and your organization’s goals. What do you say in those cases? ‘I need to know more. Let me ask you the following questions….’ Essentially, you’re getting the person who is making the ask to provide you with a more thorough or convincing request. What if you do understand the ask and you don’t think it’s a worthwhile goal for you right now? You might say, “That’s not something I can say yes to at this time because the likelihood of success is low,” “…the necessary resources are too great,” “…it’s not in alignment with the current priorities,” or “…the likely outcome is not desirable at this time for this specific reason.’
We are taught to mostly say yes in our lives based on cultural or societal norms. Learning to say ‘No’ well, could provide you with more focus, time and resources to actually accomplish both your company, career and life goals.