Saying "no" to someone with superior organizational power can be trying indeed. The unwelcome news doesn't always land easily, and the consequences to a no-sayer's reputation and career can be severe. But we can deliver "no" more effectively, and more safely, if we understand three of the many obstacles to successful delivery of "no."
- Accurate threat assessment
- In unsafe environments, where superiors abuse their power by shaping their subordinates' expressed opinions, the threat to anyone who must deliver "no" is real. Subordinates who assess this threat accurately can experience a sense of intimidation, which can cause them to appear less than confident when delivering their "no."
- Since these no-sayers appear to lack confidence, the recipients of their "n" messages tend to discount what they hear, which can lead some recipients to reject the no-sayer's "no." In this way, the no-sayer's accurate assessment of the threat to the no-sayer can lead to rejection of the "no," even when the no-sayer has mustered the courage to deliver "no."
- Incompetent task difficulty assessment
- Those who lack sufficient competence to recognize impossible task assignments represent another threat to those who would say "no." A typical threat that no-sayers experience, delivered by superiors intent on receiving "yes" instead of "no," is, "If you can't get the job done, I'll find someone who can."
- Superiors who lack competence sufficient to recognize the impossibility of their demands tend also to lack competence sufficient to recognize the incompetence of the people to whom they turn for "yes" when a no-sayer says "no." These powerful people might truly believe that they've found someone who will get the job done, but all they have really found is someone who agrees to take on an impossible task, and who isn't competent to recognize the impossibility of that task.
- Inaccurate message formation
- Superiors who are intent on shaping the expressed opinions of subordinates are more likely than others to withhold from subordinates information about the task at hand and about the environment in which it's hosted. This withholding can result in no-sayers delivering specious arguments as justification for their nos.
- When this happens, recipients A 'No' uttered from deepest conviction
is better and greater than a 'Yes'
merely uttered to please, or what is
worse, to avoid trouble.
—Mohandas Ghandifeel justified in rejecting the no-sayer's position in its entirety, even if the no-sayer's conclusion is valid. Recipients who reason in this way are committing the formal fallacy — an error in logic — known as denying the antecedent. It follows the pattern: (a) If P, then Q; (b) Not P; (c) Therefore, not Q.
Although the recipient rejects the "no" for reasons that aren't logically correct, the recipient might actually recognize the error. Recipients who do so are acting unethically.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.