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Here’s How to Avoid Being the Office Grinch

Asian businessman working on projectAsian businessman working on project

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “At work, what’s the right way to say ‘no’?” is written by Joni Klippert, vice president of product at VictorOps.

As the vice president of product for an information technology company, I have to balance requests from all areas of the organization and ultimately decide where we’re going to invest our engineering time. As our company has matured and gained market traction, my role has shifted from one where I felt like Santa Claus every day to one that makes me feel a lot more like the Grinch.

Along with our continued success have come more constituents with asks of our product: passionate customers with product suggestions, salespeople advocating for a prospective client’s feature request, engineers fighting to add new features, customer support workers relaying customer complaints, and of course, a CEO seeking support for strategic initiatives and enhancements to the platform.

These are all deserving requests, and it’s difficult to prioritize one over another. However, everyone can’t get what they want in their desired timeframe. Here are some tips I’ve learned not just for saying “no,” but saying it with conviction:

Explain your company’s goals

Ensure that the employees requesting resources understand your company’s goals and how their work fits into the bigger picture. In a venture capital­–backed startup, the product roadmap evolves quickly, as do the needs of the business between investment cycles. Prior to a fundraiser, you may need to hone in on a particular piece of business ahead of producing the next innovative feature for your product. While both initiatives might be immensely valuable, one may need to be slotted behind the other for the time being.

Be transparent

When approached with an ask that would require you to say “no” to something else or miss a deadline, provide a sense of how many demands are being placed on your team and the company as a whole. Encourage your colleagues to approach their requests with the same amount of rigor that they’d employ when making a business decision. The more data you have about how a request relates to overall goals and initiatives, the more likely you are to give someone a favorable response or reshuffle priorities. If the data provided does not justify priority, you have a nice starting point for a healthy discussion about why you need to turn it down.


Indicate when the answer may be “yes”

In my experience, when a business grows to the point of supporting Fortune 500 companies, new requests of its product frequently arrive. Some of these requests require substantive changes to the product. For these customers, your initial “no” responses might later culminate in a very big “yes” once the underlying product has changed enough to deliver the requested feature.

Be agile

More than once I’ve declaratively stated that we would not build something, only to find myself building some version of the request a few months later, after it was prioritized. For example, it may be worth occasionally appeasing a large enterprise’s request—even if it will require more work on the front end—rather than only developing software for younger, more innovative firms. This is not about pride; it’s business.

Saying “no” should not be an emotional undertaking. It’s reasonable to be passionate about doing more for your business, but prioritization is a fact of life. If you are worried about the social implications of saying “no,” or you let others’ feelings dictate your work, you are doing a disservice to the business.

Remember that saying “no” to one thing means saying “yes” to another. With a framework in place, you can make and communicate decisions more easily.