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
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- Eight hours a day — usually more — of meetings, phone calls, reading and writing email and text messages, briefing others or being briefed, is enough to drive anyone around the bend. To re-energize, to clarify one's perspective, and to restore creative capacity, play is essential. Play at work, I mean. Available here and by RSS on August 28.
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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.