Leadership is all about focusing energy on achieving an important goal. In achieving focus, leadership is implicitly saying “no” to all the other less-important things that might be attempted at this time. In this sense, “saying no” to trivia and distractions is the essence of leadership.
I was reminded of this by a recent Twitter posting from Mark Fritz (@markfritz) to this effect:
THE POWER IN SAYING NO: The people who are afraid to say NO will never create enough focus (POWER) on the important.
At the same time, when a leader says “no” to a follower who has passionately put forward an alternative way of doing things, the sound of “no” can deliver a spirit-crushing blow. It can carry dead the weight of hierarchical authority, the stench of soul-destroying command-and-control. It can imply an adult-child relationship, (“I’m the boss and I know better than you,”) rather than an adult-adult relationship in which leaders and followers have a reciprocal responsibility to listen to each other’s ideas and converse, rather than to command. Even when reasons are given in support of “no”, the sound of “no” can be interpreted as disrespect, or even contempt. Hardly the kind of feelings that will lead to an energized and inspired workforce.
In traditional management thinking, there tends to be a tug of war between two types of people: “leaders” who try to inspire their followers by saying “yes”, and “managers” who keep things running on track and on time by saying “no”. But when the managers say “no”, they crush the enthusiasm that the leaders may have inspired. The net result of the tug of war is a global workforce where only one in five workers is fully engaged in his or her work.
So what’s a leader to do? How does a leader practicing radical management say “no” while maintaining focus, enthusiasm and inspiration?
The trick is to use one of three, and only three, answers, when a follower proposes doing things differently:
1. “Yes!”: Ideally, of course, if the follower’s idea is a good one, the leader should embrace the idea with enthusiasm. That may not be the case. So the leader has to go to the second or third response.
2. “Not yet!”: If the idea has promise, but the timing isn’t right, or if more work needs to be done on it before it can be implemented, a “not yet” answer can recognize the merit in the idea, while not allowing it to distract from higher priority action items.
3. “I have a better idea!”: This answer involves the leader taking the trouble to understand the substantive merit behind the follower’s proposal and then come up with a better way of achieving the same result. There can then ensure an adult-adult conversation about the merits of the proposal.
What if the follower’s idea has no merit at all? What if the idea puts forward something that is illegal and unethical? Does the leader still not say, “no!”? In this instance, the leader’s “better idea” will be to suggest trying to achieve the result while doing only things that legal and ethical; alternatively, if the follower is adamant in pursuing the idea, the leader’s “better idea” may be to suggest that the follower pursue the ideas in a different organization. With such a response, the leader is of course implicitly saying “no”, but the tonality of the discussion is very different: it is interactive and respectful, rather than dismissive and hierarchical.
The impatient traditional manager may well find such advice preposterous and say, “Why waste time? Why beat around the bush? Why not just say no!” The answer is that abruptly saying “no” appears to save time in the short run, but when you look at the time and effort involved in inspiring an engaged workforce, every instance where the follower’s spirit is crushed by a quick “no” will require many subsequent efforts to rebuild morale. Hence the short run saving of time in an abrupt conversation will be a long run loss of time in repairing the damage to morale.
“No” can thus be a very expensive word to use. If a leader can maintain focus without having to say “no”, the gains to the work will be major.
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