Menu Join now Search

How to Say No or Yes on Your Terms

Many times in business you are asked to do things because a) you are the first warm body, b) you’re the person that can be counted on to deliver, or c) the person making the request hasn’t consciously thought through the need for the request.
Usually you are caught off-guard, and before you know it your response is “auto-pilot yes.” So, before you “auto-yes” any requests, you need to gain clarification (both for you and them) on why you are the right person for the project and why the project is right for the business. Many times saying yes isn’t good for you or the business.

Asking questions will allow you either to provide yourself with the appropriate business rationale for saying no or enable you to say yes on your terms. Asking questions for clarification is fundamental, but often overlooked by both parties. Asking questions helps you avoid false starts and frustration, and keeps you focused.

I suggest my clients ask such questions as:
  • What do you want as an outcome? What will this task/assignment/request accomplish?
  • How do you see this being accomplished?
  • How does this align with our vision in our department, or company?
  • Has it been done before?
  • What were the results?
  • What is the deadline?
  • What does the deadline have to do with the accomplishment? Your goal is to establish the time-sensitive nature of the project and appropriately prioritize it.
  • Who is initiating this? This may give you a glimpse of any politics driving it.
  • What resources do I need? Give this due consideration and be prepared to negotiate for what you need. If your boss says no to the resources you think you need, look for ways to refocus the work.
  • What are the essentials and what is the sequence? If the resources aren’t available this quarter, can you push it back? If it is a priority can you take on this new assignment but remove two other projects from your plate?

Then ask yourself:
  • What are the rewards if I say yes on my terms?
  • What are the consequences if I say no?

Armed with this information, you can now make a decision—and ultimately, its business, nothing personal. Your decision should be based on what’s best for the business, and you should always be able to make the business case for either accepting or declining an assignment.

Let me give you an example. I have a client—let’s call her Cheryl, because that isn’t her name— who was a senior human resources (HR) executive earlier in her career. When we first met, she was asked by the Chief People Officer (CPO) of one of their divisions to have her team perform all the recruitment for the field managers. Now, that would have been an enormous undertaking. HR would have been over-taxed and unable to deliver its core services. She felt it was the wrong thing to do for the business, needed resources were lacking, and she knew this was not aligned with the business strategy. But the CPO initially felt she was being insubordinate and took the issue to her boss. Her boss supported her not only because they were aligned on the business vision, but also because Cheryl presented a sound business rationale for saying no. What my client did do—which is very important—was that she identified another solution, another way it could be accomplished. They outsourced the recruiting. She helped the CPO think it through, and she got credit for developing the strategy and future vision for that (CPO's) division. She did this not because she wanted to get out of work, but because she wanted to do work that adds value and is aligned with the broader vision—work that allows her to grow. She wanted to “keep her hourly rate high,” in other words.

When it comes down to it, work/life balance is about more than simply having time balance in your personal and work spheres. It is about having meaningful engagement both in your personal and professional life. By not saying no to some tasks in business—or by saying yes before defining your terms—you run the risk of offsetting the balance in both spheres of your life. The quality of your work will suffer if you have too much on your plate or take on a project that is not wise for you or the business—and your personal life will suffer, because it is from this sphere that you will likely have to borrow from to get more of your most precious resource: your own time.