Emma: Saying no is such an unused muscle when you’re a new manager. Most of us become managers because we’ve said yes to pretty much everything that’s come our way — extra work, longer hours, more responsibility.

Andy: As a people-pleasing high achiever, my answer was almost always yes! more! again! The consequences didn’t matter. If I was tired or cranky or hated my life, well, that’s what it takes to be successful.

Emma: How else does anyone show they’re impressive?

Andy: Plus, it’s so easy to fall sway to hierarchical thinking — that the higher up the organization someone is, the more right they are when they ask me to do something.

Emma: It’s so true. One of the biggest areas I’ve had to grow as a manager is believing that I know my team better than anyone: better than my boss, better than the VP of my department, better than any other manager. Realizing that was like flipping a switch from, “I must not know what they know” to “They are missing information I need to provide.”

Not that it makes saying no any easier…

Andy: Maybe a little easier? May no smidgen of growth go unnoticed!

But, yeah, we’re told that saying no is dangerous and won’t get us anywhere. It shows we aren’t invested enough or thinking big enough.

Emma: At the same time, we know that no is important and that powerful people wield that word to great effect. Oprah does. Steve Jobs did.

Andy: A flat-out no — full stop, no compromise — is hard to do without building up your no muscles. It’s definitely possible…

Emma: Sure. I mean, there are moms who can lift up cars that are crushing their children with their bare hands.

Andy: Most of us need practice. It’s helpful for me to remember that by saying no to one thing, I’m saying yes to something else: a budget, a cap on hours, my team’s sanity. As a manager, I’m responsible for the health of all those things. My team’s long-term success depends on them!

Emma: I also like to talk about saying no — hypothetically — when there isn’t any pressure. I’ve done this in 1-on-1s with my bosses: straight up ask them about what they expect to hear when they give an order, or strategies they use to push back on their own bosses. I approach the conversation casually and with a lot of curiosity, like I’m Terry Gross, or Alix Spiegel from Invisibilia: two women who seem to be able to weasel information out of anyone.

I learned from a boss in one of those conversations that he often reacted badly when someone pushed back on him, but that he ultimately respected the person more if they didn’t concede. From then on, I was absolutely dogged in confrontations with him, even when he was harsh or dismissive and I felt like giving in.

Andy: Another great opportunity to practice saying no is while on vacation. I force myself to stick to my out of office autoreply, and not chime in on that OMG WHY IS ANDY IN BAJA RIGHT NOW?! email.

Emma: No in absentia. I love it.

Andy: I also think it’s practice to answer somewhere between a full yes and a flat-out no — that third way. If someone asks me, “Can you drive me to the mall right now?” there are more than two answers. Maybe I could drive them to the train station that’s on the way, or drop them off at the mall later on when I’m already running errands.

Emma: Maybe we skip the mall altogether, order a pizza, and shop online!

Andy: Yes, that’s a much better plan.

10 Ways to Turn a No Into a Yes

Think it’s a no, but want to find a third way? Consider these limitations or adjustments.

1. Increase the price

2. Delay the deadline

3. Stop doing something else

4. Decrease the quality

5. Decrease the quantity

6. Increase the manpower

7. Increase the machine assistance — can you build a program or a tool to help?

8. Change the launch point — can something give your work a head start? (Think: buying pre-cut onions at the grocery store)

9. Negotiate something that makes the pain worthwhile — a tradeoff, a service-level agreement, a resolution to an ongoing issue

10. Ask for something first as a down payment on your time (Think: I’ll have a coffee with you about your career if you send me your resume and three job listings you’re interested in strategizing about)



Emma: One of my biggest problems with saying no is feeling like my reason isn’t good enough. “We’ve been working really hard and need a break,” isn’t a terribly compelling argument, even when I know it’s true. Same with “I’m too busy” and “That’s too short of notice” and “That’s not really my job.”

But my instincts for saying no are often right. Trusting that instinct is a good first step. Being able to articulate that instinct is another story.

Andy: There are some people who can do that really fast. They instantaneously fast-forward into the future to see how something will play out, then provide a well-founded yes or no based on that vision.

Emma: Those fast-forwards get easier and more instantaneous the more experience you have to draw from. Without a lot of experience, though, it takes intention, which is easy to lose when you’re on the spot. Believe me: Just this week I said yes to something dumb I should have said no to. Andy can attest to this! She was there.

Andy: We say yes to things that should be no’s all the time. That’s where experience comes from!

How to See Into the Future

If you’re trying to decide yes or no — or your instincts say no, but you’re not sure why — try visualizing your next steps if you were to say yes. Even better, walk through them with a co-manager or someone on your team whose opinion you trust.

If you say yes, what are your next steps? Visualize what needs to happen to execute them: resources, time, process. You can get pretty granular: What instructions would you provide if you delegated? What questions would you need to be able to answer?

Do you have enough information to perform those next steps? You don’t have to answer yes or no until you do.

What impact do next steps have? This is when it’s particularly helpful to know your numbers and have a scorecard everyone’s aligned around. Those are where your no arguments live, and where yes’s or third ways make themselves clear.

No: The team is currently operating at 33% over capacity, and taking on this additional work will put us at 46% over capacity.

Yes: This is a slow time for us, so we have bandwidth right now.

A third way: The team is currently operating at 33% over capacity. If we delay Project Alpha by five months, we can complete Project Bravo by May 15.

Changing the color of the price in your ads to red goes against the event style guide and design tenets, which trump incremental increase in click-through rate.

Yes: Changing the color of the price in your ads to red has such dramatic increase in click-through rate we’re going to update our style guide!

A third way: Changing the color of the price in your ads to red goes against the event style guide and design tenets. We’ve found that we can increase click-through rate by limiting the copy — I’ve attached a mock up. Would you like to run with this version instead?

Need to Buy Yourself Some Time?

You don’t need to have the perfect argument to say no. Try these phrases to surface your uncertainty with confidence.

  • My first instinct is to say
  • I’m all for [insert outcome here], but I’m worried about
  • One risk I see is
  • I want to voice a limitation
  • Let’s challenge some of the assumptions here
  • What trade-offs are we making?
  • What’s the urgency?
  • I need more information…

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: 5 Ways to Say No Edition

The Bent Good Boss Achievement Stickers Saying No Edition