Sticky Notes: When to Say, “No”

“No” at work is a way to prevent you and your colleagues from wasting time and attention and, very likely, money and other resources on something that cannot be done, is not allowed, or should not be done.

The very good “no” is all about timing and logic.

“No” at work is a way to prevent you and your colleagues from wasting time and attention and, very likely, money and other resources on something that cannot be done, is not allowed, or should not be done.

I call these the three “no gates.” I’m borrowing from the concept of the gate review process. This is a project management technique dividing projects or initiatives into distinct phases, each of which must be subjected to a review: a “go, no go” decision point, a yes or no. At each gate, certain requirements must be met.

You have to pass the no gates in order to get to yes (giving one or getting one):

  1. I simply cannot do it. I don’t have the skill, knowledge, capacity in time, resources, or energy.
  2. I’m not allowed to do it. There are procedures, rules, guidelines, or regulations that prohibit it.
  3. I should not do it. This one is a tough one because you need to make a decision based on factors such as: What is the likelihood of success? Resources required? Potential return on investment? Other priorities that might take precedence? The answer is not always so clear, at least not at first. The answer might be “maybe” or “not yet.” Then you need to ask some good questions and help the asker fine-tune their request.

If you really think the idea is a bad one, you might try to suggest they alter their intentions.

If you think the idea is fine, but just not for you, maybe you can help them find an alternative go-to person.

Even if the answer is no, look ahead together to how you might add value for each other in the future. Let them know which tasks and responsibilities and projects for which they should go to you. And also ask about their specialties—how they can be a go-to person for you, too.

Bruce Tulgan is a best-selling author and CEO of RainmakerThinking, the management research, consulting, and training firm he founded in 1993. All of his work is based on 27 years of intensive workplace interviews and has been featured in thousands of news stories around the world. His newest book, “The Art of Being Indispensable at Work: Win Influence, Beat Overcommitment, and Get the Right Things Done”( Harvard Business Review Press) is available for purchase from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all major booksellers. Follow Tulgan on Twitter @BruceTulgan or visit his Website at: rainmakerthinking.com.