The martial art of emailing

The power to say “No!”

The power to say No - wiertz sebastien - 120 X 120Human kind has something different compare to animal species, they have the power to make choices.

Unfortunately, some people have not discovered   this difference yet and tend to say “yes!” to each and every request they receive.

While organizing my notes from my numerous feeds, I rediscovered the following quote from Peter Drucker :

“ People are effective because they say “No”, not because they say “Yes.” “

I am also currently reading for the second time “The 7 habits of high effective people” by Stephen R. Covey and in his habit 3: Put first things first, he explained how to stay away from two ineffective quadrants (quadrant III and IV in the time management matrix).

If Peter Drucker and Stephen R. Covey tend to prove the efficiency of saying “No” ,  why is it so difficult to say “No” ?

Saying “No” is time consuming

The equation is simple: “Yes” is the opposite of “No” and therefore  saying “No” costs you time because saying yes does not.

Saying yes to all requests reduces the time you are able to focus on others, therefore, reducing the global quality of your work. This will systematically unbalance your equilibrium work-life (do not forget your wife’s to do list).

Some people do not take No for an answer and will come back in the future with the same request again and again. If the condition of your prior answer did not change, you will have to reiterate the reason why you can not give a positive answer to this request. I am sure that you know people like that and you should thank them since they force you to learn what being patient mean.

Saying yes to all  requests will also automatically attract people who tend to pawn off work they are suppose to do on you !

Do not forget that your company pays you to be effective and not simply to say yes.

So, are you organized enough to say no?

By being organized, I mean are you organized enough to be able to take a decision  to accept or not upcoming tasks according to your current workload/schedule ? Are you able to clearly and quickly make decisions without being guided by your emotions (or feelings) ?

Saying “No” implies that you will have to defend and show the value of your current tasks and the only way to achieve this is to be able to show these tasks at anytime. You cannot afford to be vague when answering a request besides your answer should be “Yes or “No” and not “maybe”.

So, if you and your team are organized, you are armed to say “No!”. If not, you’d better start getting organized !

What if your boss can’t say “No!”

“Houston, we have another problem, I think my boss cannot say no”

Roger that, be prepared for an emergency landing! »

Indeed, if you can say “No” and your boss can not, your team will be forced to say yes and we are back to the starting point (Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200).

The solution is not to organize your boss if he is not but your role as a direct is to report to him regularly. This regular meeting will make him conscious of the workload and status of the different tasks inside your team and he may therefore think twice before accepting a task his department could not handle.

When Relationship matters

Saying “yes” when it is impossible for you to keep up with your current tasks directly “undermines” your self respect. As I said in the beginning of this article, accepting more tasks reduce the quality of your work and logically impact the relationship you have with the originators of those previous tasks.

On the other hand, Saying “No” can have a significant impact on the relationship you have with the one who made the request. It is therefore essential to explain clearly the reason why you cannot provide a positive answer to a given request. you must listen and clarify the request before saying no in order for the requester to feel respected and not rejected.

The power to say”no” is first and foremost to know when to say “Yes”

Some people may find it popular to say “Yes, we can” but they will realize later  that “No, We can not” is often the quickest way to efficiency.

Do you have the power to say “No” inside your company? And if not, why is it so ? I would love to hear your comments.

15 Responses to “The power to say “No!””

  1. Emilie Ogez

    For me, it’s often difficult to say “no”. I don’t know why. And what I can notice is that saying “yes” is at first very fast; but later, for instance, when you have to prepare a presentation for a conference, I realize that it takes some time!

    • Wiertz Sébastien


      It’s true, Saying “no!” is not easy and as I said it has directly an impact on your work-life balance.

      As a father, I have learned to say no to my daughter with arguments. It helps her to plaid every time in different ways and it constructs a debate between us.

      In a company, saying “no!” leads also to debate and we know all that debate is the kernel of any innovation.

  2. Anthony Poncier

    That’s true it’s often difficult to say “no” to his/her manager with the pressure. But at the opposite two things :

    – Many people say “yes” cause they think they have to do it, but in fact they act as they said “no” or “may be”.

    – About change, lot of people say “no” or act “no”, cause of they are afraid by change and an unknown futur.

    Not all the time, but sometimes, coud be good to say “yes” to change. For Enterprise 2.0 for example ;-)

    • Wiertz Sébastien


      I was sure that you would enter the term enterprise 2.0 in this comment :)
      My topic was not really on change management and I am glad that you introduce that in your comment.
      People who are saying “no!” just to say “No!” or just because they afraid to change are easily recognizable inside a company and finding arguments against them are sometimes a full time job (especially when introducing enterprise 2.0)
      Since change management is a big topic, I will come back to this in a future post.

  3. Barthox

    This is a recurrent topic among the corporate world … that is often told but really rarely followed unfortunately …

    I would compare it to assertivity : everybody agrees it’s a great concept, but no one is really using it …

    The problem, as you describe it, is that it works best if everybody plays along …

    It is probably possible to do it even if you’re the only one, only much harder …

    Also, I believe that some people can’t really afford to say no because it is their job to do what people ask. Just imagine :

    – a concierge in a 5* hotel telling a customer that ‘he’s very sorry, but it won’t be possible to go fetch those tickets for tonight’s show …’
    – the IT technician telling an employee that ‘no there’s really no way he can check the printer to see what’s wrong with it …’

    I know, these examples are a bit silly, but you get the idea …

    • Wiertz Sébastien


      Of course, it’s clear that you are paid to execute some tasks describe in your job description (if you have one). To come back to your example, a technician can not refuse to check the printer but can refuse to do it if it’s a recurrent error and everybody knows how to resolve it by pressing a button. in this case, he should say “NO!” by creating once for all an explanation note on how to resolve it.

      He is also paid to be effective and having this kind of repetitive work can be dangerous since those kind of job can be easily outsourced (especially in the IT). So sometimes saying no means I can do better than that in a more efficient way !

      we have to think win-win ;)

  4. enectoux

    Hi Sébastien,

    You are pointing to many points there. Here is what comes to my mind reading your post:

    Saying “No” is time consuming
    Agree, but one thing I miss here is that “NO” request self confidence in what you are doing is right. That this has higher priority than what is requested to you. Which lead us to your second point: “are you organized”. I would say that among being organized here (which let you get more and more work) the important question is: do you know what you are here for? Do you know what is your added value? Back to self confidence. ;o)

    Reg. “your boss”, this is a good way to make him realize what he is asking for… I addition, you must concider among other things, people who don’t say “No”, don’t know how to delegate. This is where GTD can help too. (GTD process (Do it! / Delegate it! Defer it!)

    Finally, I would say that: “say NO” is a conscious decision, avoiding “no” it allows to not have to make the choice.

  5. Tom Graves

    I can see the validity in what you’re saying, but in my experience getting people to say ‘Yes’ with honesty and commitment often seems much harder!

    One of the characteristics of public-sector agencies is that just about everyone can say ‘No’, but almost no-one is willing to say ‘Yes’. ‘Yes’ is a very dangerous word there, because you can be associated with something that didn’t work – a career-limiting move – whereas saying ‘No’ dissociates you from any nominal responsibility. (That you’re then responsible for something important not-happening doesn’t seem to occur to many people – perhaps because non-engagements in non-incidents are harder to trace than engagement in actual incidents.) The result is often a culture of near-obsessive evasion of responsibility, where nothing happens, expensively.

    Saying ‘Yes’ mindlessly or slavishly (literally) creates exactly the problems you describe. By contrast, saying ‘Yes’ with conscious awareness creates commitment and drive. ‘No’ ensures that nothing happens; things only happen when someone says ‘Yes’. And sometimes there needs to be a lot of ‘Yes’ in order to ensure that something we don’t want doesn’t happen.

    So to me it’s not about ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, but the awareness and commitment behind them. I’d suggest that that might be a more useful focus than the individual words themselves.

  6. Alain Yap

    For some the difficulty to say no might also lie in it’s culture as Malcolm Gladwell may have touched on in his Outliers book. Won’t get to the details, just showing that it might be a group thing and there lies a bigger problem not just in achieving a win-win solution but a tragedy always waiting to happen.


  7. lamia ben

    Hi Sébastien,
    I think you raised some very important points here. One of the major problems people face is saying No in the workplace.

    “Saying “No” implies that you will have to defend and show the value of your current tasks and the only way to achieve this is to be able to show these tasks at anytime.”

    I’ve read a great example given by Curtis R. Cook in his book “Just enough project management”. He suggests that scheduling your time weekly and displaying it on your workload (using a wall chart or outlook) can help you enter into constructive dialog with your boss in case he drops another project on your already full-to-the-top plate. Nice discussion, no hard feeling, and the work needed to be done will end up being done by the most available person.

  8. Janis La Couvée @lacouvee

    I agree with Tom Graves, it seems to me that it is indeed harder and harder to get people to say “yes” whole-heartedly. Perhaps not so much in the work place, but definitely in the area of community and volunteerism.

    People need to have very clear priorities and make sure that they allocate the correct amount of time to tasks (even double the amount). Emilie touched on this when she said that she has a hard time saying “No” and then realizes she has not allowed time to prepare a presentation for a conference.

    It used to annoy my colleagues when I would block time at the end of the month for report writing (usually twice as much as needed), but in the end it allowed me to be nimble and accommodate those last minute requests that are forever coming our way.

    We teach by example – people’s emergency is not my urgency. I’m happy to help given enough warning, but if a colleague rushes in with a task due to their poor planning, I may be forced to put the choice before them – “I can help you with your request but then 250 people will not be paid”. It worked like a charm – they soon learned that I was usually willing to help if they planned properly.

    In the volunteer and community arenas, however, some of us are quite capable of handling multiple projects, committees, boards and volunteer assignments. Having said that – I don’t own a TV!! Again, it’s a case of priorities – I CHOOSE to be involved.

    Thanks for the great post Sébastien.

  9. Steph.

    “People who are saying “no!” just to say “No!” or just because they afraid to change are easily recognizable inside a company and finding arguments against them are sometimes a full time job”

    It’s my fulltime job since 10 months… I’m a lucky man!

    All people that can’t say “NO”, always says that they have a lot of tasks and that they is overloaded. But they do nothing concrete, just meetings, workgroups and a lot of reports… but no action!

    I don’t understand why they are affraid but it’s very difficult, for me, to resist at that fear.

    • Wiertz Sébastien

      here is another quote from Peter Drucker which illustrate your comment ;) -> “People do not resist change they resist being changed”.
      What you face is probably a lack of objectives inside your company and without a clear definition of the priorities, people will tend to engage in their own path which may somehow be productive but maybe not in accordance with the strategy in place. You can not organise others execpt if they are your directs but you better be well organised before to force them to follow your example. Why ? Because they have to see the benefit of your organisation.

      I Also agree that meetings are often seen as a waste of time but effective meeting are not and that may be a good topic for a next post;).

  10. Wiertz Sébastien

    Here is a comment I received by email today:

    …very, very interesting! Great!
    I prefer the few people that say NO rather those that always say Yes but are not able to respect their engagements.
    I have to say that some times it happens to me too. Say yes is really easier. To say No needs to be mature, conscious, prepared.
    I’ve seen in an answer to a comment, you compare the ability to say No at work to the ability to say No to the kids. I completely agree with you! Many times as parents we are temped to answer Yes! to all our son’s requests… sometimes we confuse it with love, but it a big mistake: it doesn’t help them to grow!


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