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Say Yes to No

Blog | Building Culture   |   January 27, 2017

by Janina Aritao

Back in the olden days, let’s say, over a decade ago, I was a young designer, eager to please my superiors, to prove that I was not worthless.

This kind of insecurity led to a reluctance to say no to requests I could not handle. Not only insecurity, it was the perception that it was my responsibility to do everything I was requested to. Add to that bad judgment of time required to finish my tasks. The result: missed deadlines, daily late nights, and overly rushed work that I was not proud of.

Back then, to me “no” seemed like a bad word. “No” meant letting others down. I felt that saying “No” would mean “I don’t want to” or “I don’t care”. But in reality, it was my “yes” that was the bad word—I thought I was being a hero—“Yes! I will do it for you and save you from the client’s wrath!” “Yes I am supergirl!” It was proud and delusional.

So my yes meant, “Yes even if I am overloaded with other things I will be a martyr because I need you to like me and think that I’m so dedicated and committed.” It was a people-fearing, people-pleasing yes, that would do harm to the projects and the company’s output. “Yes I will take on this task and let’s just hope for the best even if I don‘t have enough sleep to carry on.”

So because of this terrible inability, I felt like all the reprimands, the lectures, the unbelievable typos and things that got printed that were not supposed to be printed, were a result of not enough “no”s. That 3am drive to a suppliers’ place (because she smsed us that she will use her witch powers to get the impossible work done) to make sure they would really be done assembling participant packs in time for a 9am event—that was not a part of being a young designer. Some of it was, and was perhaps good learning, but mostly it was because I couldn’t say no. Many things were beyond my control but I also didn’t have the wisdom and discernment, still learning the dynamics of agency work. And still plagued by the ridiculous sense that everything depended on me.

Saying no is difficult, and at first it may feel wrong, but when we think more and more about what is behind that no, we realize that no is also in many ways, saying Yes. Saying yes to protecting the people and projects you already committed to. Making sure you have the time and resources to do a great job.

A healthy culture of saying “no”

While individuals develop this discernment and discipline as they grow in the workplace, companies can also create a healthy culture of saying no by having the right responses to people who give a reasonable no.

Do people have the freedom to say no at your department, in your team, or at your workplace? Realize that when they say no, it makes their yes-es even more meaningful. When they say no it is not a rejection- it allows them to give more focus and attention to what they said yes to.

Allowing people to say no is part of a culture of trust, a part of empowering them to make wise decisions. When the company creates this culture, it protects the employees, the vision, the business focus.

Here are some tips to help build a culture of trust and learning to say NO:

  • Always let your no be purposeful, and with the right reasons, not out of annoyance or fatigue
  • Be solution-oriented in your no. You are saying no as far as your capability is concerned, but you can point out solutions to help the person.
  • Leaders can help reinforce this by explaining to staff why it’s okay to say no. Culture-building is always more effective starting from the top. Tell stories of managers and leaders saying no to things for the good of the company, the business, and staff.

Janina is a Senior Consultant at ROHEI who loves to draw alphabets.

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