5 situations in which saying 'no' is the best tactic

Saying "no" is an important leadership duty, but it is easier in some situations than others. In circumstances in which the right answer is not crystal clear, voicing concerns can be uncomfortable and asking too many questions can feel politically risky.

But however difficult it may be, knowing when to say no is an integral leadership skill. Without the capacity to push back, a leader runs the risk of "commitment drift," according to Elizabeth Doty, a former lab fellow of Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and founder of consultancy Leadership Momentum.

In a recent article for Strategy+Business, Ms. Doty defines commitment drift as instances in which "promises made to customers or employees, or to promote safety, specific values, financial discipline, or social and environmental responsibility are eroded incrementally, without anyone really stopping to think about the consequences." In short, saying no to stop dysfunctional momentum — however slowly it may be building — can help an organization steer toward success and actualize its values.

According to Ms. Doty, the first step to building your ability to say no is to recognize some of the common scenarios that should raise a red flag.

1. You are being pressured to make a commitment you can't follow through on. If someone is pressuring you to make a promise or commitment you know you can't keep, say no. While he or she might be disappointed in the short-term, being honest about what you can and cannot deliver on will maintain your credibility and the person's trust in you, according to Ms. Doty. In this case, instead of just saying "no," suggest alternative ways the person can achieve their goal.

2. You have a gut feeling something isn't right. If your intuition is screaming "NO!" — take a moment to stop and reflect. Ask yourself what is bothering you about the situation, and what the consequences of the actions currently being taken are. Similarly, if you feel fine but someone else you respect has voiced reservations, stop and ask what seems "off" to them, according to Ms. Doty.

3. You feel like you can't say no. Leaders often say they feel intense pressure to meet expectations, and that saying no is not an option. But there is always a choice — it just might have high stakes. "It is part of our responsibility as professionals to recognize when there is something more important than a project or deadline," wrote Ms. Doty.

4. The plan has become a monster. Once people commit to an idea, they tend to stick to it, even in the face of evidence that shows the idea will fail. To stop this dysfunctional momentum, many leaders in healthcare, aviation and other fields have implemented protocols that involve pausing and revisiting the data to evaluate whether or not the initiative at question is still on the right track.

5. You notice a pattern of bad behaviors. Scandals and catastrophes are often the product of small, incremental trade-offs or compromises. According to Ms. Doty, if you notice a pattern of decisions that could threaten safety, quality, data security, customer focus or ethics, it is time to take a step back and evaluate the cumulative effects.


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