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  • Writer's pictureAngeline

The art of saying no

Illustration by Angeline Veeneman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

“Can you deliver this project two weeks early?”

“Can you cut your project budget by 20%?”

“Can you add this to the scope?”

Project Managers have to address a lot of requests throughout the life of a project, and some of these can be tough to say no to, especially when they come from your senior stakeholders. Yet, saying yes to requests you know you/your team can’t (or shouldn’t) do can be a recipe for disaster.

Why we are naturally reluctant to say no

Culturally we often have a hard time saying a little word that can carry so much weight, particularly in a professional context. In general we tend to assimilate a “no” to either “I don’t want to do it” (unwillingness) or “I can’t do it” (incompetence), and either way it resonates as rejection or failure. We are afraid of the perception it will create of us, and to be viewed as either a no-go-to person who is unhelpful or incapable, or an unapproachable dragon that should be best avoided altogether. It’s often easier at first to be the nice person who says yes. Yet, sometimes the best thing we can do for our project stakeholders (aka our customers) is to say no.

An honest “No” is better than an ambiguous “Yes but”

Building healthy relationships with your stakeholders is about creating mutual trust and respect, and the sense that, on both sides, you are the people who will make the right call. Often people ask for things without being aware of their impact on the overall project. It’s your role as the PM to make sure that the project’s interests are served. By saying no, you can actually help people consider the long-term benefits vs. a perceived short-term gain. And it’s better to be honest in your answer than giving a yes followed by a series of confusing caveats or ifs.

So how do you say no?

  1. Don’t make it personal: you are saying no to the request, not to the person. A solid change management process will help you consider requests objectively and make it easy for you to articulate a clear rationale.

  2. Say it nicely: pick your words, and your tone, wisely.

  3. Offer alternatives. If you can’t say yes to the request, what are the alternatives? Is there something else you can give your stakeholders to help them achieve what they need?

You will find that as you build relationships, people will actually appreciate the fact you are able to say no, and they will trust your ability to help them making the right decisions.

What if your stakeholders won’t take no for an answer?

You will get situations when you will not agree with something, but have to go ahead with it because ultimately the decision might not be yours. If that’s the case, you have two options:

  • accept the decision and support its execution by doing everything you can to make it work,

  • or, if you really can’t live with the decision, then consider if it’s time to think about moving on.

Whatever your answer is, don’t lie. Don’t say yes if you’re not going to do it or be supportive. And don’t be afraid to say no, just don’t make it your default answer.

When you say “yes” to others, make sure you are not saying “no” to yourself. Paulo Coelho


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