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The One Word You Should Never Say at Work

Jun 15, 2016

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no? is written by Mary Godwin, vice president of operations at Qumulo.

If your aim is to kill the creativity of your team members and make them feel irrelevant, then you can tell them “no” all you want. But if you want them to excel both personally and professionally, then you should have a very well-developed “yes” muscle. In fact, I would say that there is never a right way to say “no.”

Think about it. One of your colleagues comes to you looking for help in an area that you control, and you say “no.” Even if you sugarcoat your “no” with a million rationalizations and conditions, it’s still a “no.” What recourse does your colleague have, other than to go to your boss to try to get a “yes?” In the words of Yoda, “Always with you, what cannot be done.” This is not a good reputation to have. The only time you should say “no” is if the request is illegal or detrimental to the company, an employee, or yourself.

See also: Kate Spade CMO: The Right Way to Say No

I’m emphatic about this because of my own experiences. Over the course of my career, I’ve reorganized and restructured a lot of teams. A common cause for why the team was being restructured was that the team leadership had gotten used to saying “no.” Once the team leader had established that “no” was an acceptable answer to any request, the team membership quickly followed suit. This is a terrible precedent to set, because over time, the team will be branded as being hard to work with, with an expertise for identifying what cannot be done. More importantly, saying “no” closes down team learning opportunities that are essential for developing the creativity of the team.

Every request for help is an opportunity for a team to either further test an existing process or to provide feedback for improving that process. And sometimes it requires the team to develop a completely new solution or pushes the team to learn about a new aspect of their field. It also further develops the execution prowess of the team, especially if there are specific goals that need to be supported, such as time frames or cost targets. Saying “yes” opens up possibilities for everyone involved. “Yes” allows the team to add new solutions that they can add to their toolbox. And more tools and more solutions fuel the “yes” cycle.

I am by no means suggesting that “yes” be used to make reckless commitments or to just get the person requesting help out of your office as quickly as possible. In some cases, “yes” means, “Let me see if I can make that happen for you—I’ll get back to you in 24 hours once I have more information,” or, “Yes, I can do that, but here’s what I need from you in order to deliver.”

Sometimes saying “yes” can take a leader into the land of discomfort. You end up having to consider ideas that you’ve perhaps dismissed in the past. I’ve been there many times, so I’ve experienced this firsthand. It can be scary, but I have never been sorry for taking myself or my team on the trip. We always learn a lot and it adds to our capabilities and the story of who we are as a team. We have a few laughs along the way, and invariably, achieve way more than we ever thought we could.

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