“The oldest, shortest words – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – are those which require the most thought.” –Pythagoras
As a leader, you will be expected to make all kinds of decisions. Sometimes you’ll do this with a lot of very relevant information, and sometimes you’ll do this with very little information. Unfortunately, the powers that be don’t always make things easy or as clear cut as we would like, which could cause us to make decisions in a hurry. When you are in a hurry, it’s much easier to quickly say no, because it requires very little additional effort on your part.
The problem with saying no too quickly is it puts everyone on the defensive. Tensions rise, emotions come into play, and people begin to hold their line of thinking, so they are no longer receptive to other options. Saying no or refusing to do something may be the proper course of action, but it needs to be done in such a way where we don’t make enemies of each other.
Saying no and saying no the right way is the same as the difference between zero and one respectively. In the heat of the moment, it’s tough to hold your tongue when faced with a difficult decision, but as a leader, you must. Let’s look at an example to help clarify this concept.
You’re in an emotional customer meeting where tensions are high when the customer makes a pretty outrageous demand. Most people’s first response is defensive and involves the word NO in some manner. Say you provide a product with a two week lead time. Your customer demands you deliver the part in one week, half the time. Right away you want to push back and say NO, impossible, can’t do it. This represents ZERO on the zero to one continuum. By immediately saying no, you have put yourself on the defensive and in a pretty difficult situation with your customer. Things can easily get out of control as emotions take over logical thought. Not the result we wanted.
Now let’s look at this situation for the other side of the zero to one continuum. Another way to respond to your customer and be completely on the ONE side of the zero and one continuum is to say “of course we can cut our lead time in half for you.” Once your customer picks his jaw up off the floor, you can continue with “however, we will need to make some other adjustments.” As you may know, the holy trinity of business is cost, quality, and delivery. To maximize one of these, one or two of the others have to be affected. It is challenging to keep a steady balance between all three at the same time. There is always a healthy tension of push and pull between them. In this case, agree with the customer to cut the lead time in half (delivery), but also inform them that you will need to do something else. For instance, increase the price by some amount or risk the quality of your product. Now you are no longer on the defensive like the Zero response option. Now the choice and the responsibility is on the customer. They can have their parts in the normal time frame at the normal price, or they can have their parts 50% faster at a much higher price or a lower quality. You didn’t say no directly, but you did almost the same thing.
If the customer sincerely needs the parts faster, they’ll work with you on the added cost, and everyone wins. If they were trying to bully you in the negotiations, they’d probably stay with the original price and 2-week lead time agreement. Again, either outcome is okay with you, and you avoided a very emotional situation that could have severely damaged your professional relationship with the customer.
‘No’ may be the most powerful word in a leaders’ vocabulary, but as Pythagoras said, it requires the most thought. Leaders need to understand the power of no and how to use it wisely along the zero to one continuum.