Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

William Ury is the famous author of the best-selling book on negotiation, Getting to Yes. An authority on the skills and process of negotiation, he was a pivotal leader in the groundbreaking Harvard Negotiation Project. The penultimate message in his book is that it’s desirable and doable to get to YES when negotiating a contract, work scope, and even a small task. At ELP, however, we have our own groundbreaking thoughts on this topic. How about—what if NO is the desirable end, the better place to be? What if NO could make us better leaders and build stronger organizations? We believe it can. Actually, we love NO.

During our engagements, our leadership coaches will invariably ask a protégé during one of their sessions, “What are you going to say NO to this week?” Without exception, the leader looks confused and usually comes back with, “Are you telling me to tell someone, even my boss, NO?” Our answer is YES.

With a sample size approaching upwards of 25,000 leader engagement hours, we’ve found that most leaders are overworked. And when pressed, they often say that they work on the wrong things. They aren’t working on the hard stuff because too much minor work that delivers little value seems to always be in the way. The small and trivial can beat out the big and important. It seems like it always does—until we begin to say NO.

ELP leadership has a couple of thoughts here. First, we often fail to say NO because our brains are hardwired to please. Instead, we are built, even programmed, to say YES. Innocuous enough, but research shows that at McDonald’s they will simply ask us, “Would you like fries with that burger?” or “Could I get you an Apple Pie with that?” Our answer is more often than not a YES—simply because we don’t want to tell a stranger NO. If we can’t tell a stranger NO, how can we expect to tell a colleague or a supervising leader NO? It is hard. Guilt and a professional duty or calling to be everything to everyone drives us to say YES—even when it means that we can’t do the heavy lifting for heavy goals. Second, and because of the first point, we need to have the courage to say NO. Interestingly, we talked with one parent who said her personal and professional life got better when she learned to set boundaries and say NO in her work and home spheres. She felt less stressed, less burnt-out, and the important things in her life now had room and space to get fixed and grow. People initially rebuffed her and got angry, but she said that many respected her decisions to set appropriate boundaries. Lastly, saying NO to some things and saying YES to others forces us to deeply and critically evaluate our priorities. When everything is a YES, everything is important so nothing really is. Show us an organization that cannot list its priorities, and we will show you an under-performing organization—one that is working extremely hard to produce relatively little.

So, the immediate task at hand—one you shouldn’t say NO to—is asking: What am I going to say NO to this week in my personal and professional lives to focus on the important? Before you walk away from the screen, come up with your NO for the week. As a leader, be sure to provide the latitude to those you lead to have the freedom to say NO. Actually, be a world class leader and demand that they tell you NO at least once a week on one task or initiative.