March 12, 2019

They’ll Trust You When You Say No

When your boss comes to you with a request, you need to say yes. Right?

Wrong.  Let me explain.

Years ago, I was in my third month of a leadership position.  Settled in but still very new.  I was sitting in my boss’ office early on a Friday afternoon, watching the beginnings of what would turn out to be a long and difficult snowstorm, just outside his window.

My boss was in the midst of a storm of his own — a highly political situation where pursuing the right course of action for the institution was going to make a lot of people angry.  He came to me with two requests.

The first was easy — a task that was important, for sure, but such a no-brainer that I can’t even recall the details today.  Something I could easily do, as could several of my peers.

The second request completely eclipsed the first.  He needed my help with the highly political situation he was wrestling with.  I would take a stand in a very public way on his behalf, and deliver some very unwelcome news.  Me, the untested leader just beginning to get my feet under me in this new job.

I sat there, watching the snow fall harder and heavier, knowing I had a long weekend ahead of me, and I asked for time. I wanted to take the weekend to consider these requests.  My boss smiled knowingly and agreed immediately.

It was a long weekend.  Trapped in my home by the continuously falling snow, I spent a lot of time wrestling with my decision.  And come Monday, I knew just what I wanted to say.

Here’s what I told my boss:  “I would like to say no to your first request, because you have four or five other people who can do it.  If you tell me I have to do it, I won’t refuse, but I think you would rather have me focus my efforts where you need me.  And so for that reason, I will say yes to the second request.”

His reply?  Another knowing smile, and he said: “Now I trust you.”

What can we learn from this?  What did I learn from this?

Take time to think

When you’re asked to do something, it’s a good idea to ask for time to think it over.  Sometimes the answer is immediately clear and you don’t need time — but if you do, the person asking for your help will likely appreciate your request.  Serious asks require a thoughtful and honest answer.  Giving them the attention they deserve shows respect for the importance of the request.

Not every ask requires a yes

Do you know someone who always likes the boss’ work or agrees with every point the boss makes?  Most of us do.  And while a yes-man or yes-woman certainly can feel affirming, it’s not necessarily good for anyone.

[bctt tweet=”The whole point of building a team is to bring in different perspectives and competencies to help the institution as a whole. Saying no to a request or providing respectfully critical feedback can be a sign of respect and support, too.” username=”MettaSolutions”]

And, as I’ve written before, sometimes you have to say no to say yes.

Read between the lines of any request

Looking back, I understand that although my boss really did need help with these requests, he was testing me and my decision-making.  Did the requests intentionally come on Friday afternoon ahead of a long, snowy weekend when I would have nothing but time to think?  I don’t know.  But I do know that it’s important to understand what is driving any ask from your boss.  You may have to look beyond the substance of the request and understand how your handling of it might define you moving forward.

In my case, my boss wanted to see if I would roll over and say yes to whatever he needed.  Or would I help him make good decisions, including by saying no when I felt it was the right call?  My boss was testing me to find out if I would be a true partner.  When I gave him the answer I did, he saw that I would be.

Here’s what he told me on Monday morning when I delivered my response:  “I trust you because you told me no, and you won’t just take everything I ask and run with it.  You will think and determine what is the right and best thing to do.”

If you are going to say no, explain your thinking

When I said no to the first request my boss brought to me, I had a good reason.  I could see that he didn’t need me for that task, and I knew if I said yes to both, I would be spread too thin.  But I also recognized that although the request seemed far less important than the political task I was charged with, it still mattered.  And so I provided alternatives for making sure it got done.  I made it easy for him to accept my “no.”

Don’t go it alone on any tough task

I haven’t shared how this turned out.  After I told my boss I would accept this difficult task, we got right to work, side-by-side, with a lot of legwork and back-channel conversations.  It wasn’t exactly fun, and we made people mad as hornets, but we got it done.  I asked for my boss’ support and help, and I got it.  That’s how we made all the pieces fall into place.

When someone asks you to do something hard, don’t hesitate to ask for their help to make it happen.  They probably expect this, and you will probably need it.

How have you handled tough requests in your own work?

Please share your thoughts in the comments, especially what you’ve learned from situations like this.

Last updated March 12, 2019

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