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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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- When All Your Options Are Bad
- When you have several options, and all seem politically risky, what can you do? Here are two guidelines
to finding your way to a good outcome.
- When Others Curry Favor
- When peers curry favor with the boss, many of us feel contempt, an urge for revenge, anger, or worse.
Trying to stop those who curry favor probably isn't an effective strategy. What is?
- False Consensus
- Most of us believe that our own opinions are widely shared. We overestimate the breadth of consensus
about controversial issues. This is the phenomenon of false consensus. It creates trouble in the workplace,
but that trouble is often avoidable.
- A Critique of Criticism: I
- Whether we call it "criticism" or "feedback," the receiver can sometimes experience
pain, even when the giver didn't intend harm. How does this happen? What can givers of feedback do to
increase the chance that the receiver hears the giver's message without experiencing pain?
- Incoherent Initiatives
- Mission statements of organizational initiatives serve as recruiting instruments as advocates seek support
for their missions. When advocates compromise coherence of mission to maximize the depth and breadth
of support, trouble looms.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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