No is an act of culture

No. But not just no, absolutely not. Positively, unequivocally no.

That, is an act of culture. So many places where I have been employed have talked about their culture in forms of positivity and acceptance, how they are cultures that enable and empower, yet at the same time not only do they not allow employees to say no, but actively punished those who did. When I interviewed for a job many years ago, I mentioned that our values are defined what we say no to, and got a very negative reaction from the hiring manager. Once the comment was explained in more detail, the manager got it, but the initial reaction is a telling one about a culture.

Your answer can’t always be a no, and in fact, it shouldn’t be a default, rote response. Part of what makes us human is our need to labor, something that we by default say yes to doing. That’s not to say that our society’s current relationship with work is healthy (it isn’t), but some level of work, be it pushing a broom, picking the harvest, typing an email or holding a child, is part of who we are. If you look back to when humans were primarily hunter gatherers or subsistence farmers, we worked, but it is clear from the historical record that we worked enough to ensure the survival of ourselves, our offspring and our family group, but did no more. We did not work more, to save up for an unknown future, so that we might retire to the warmth of the beach to live out our remaining decades. When we could work no more, we died. We are fortunate that our world has changed, that we have grown, that our society has broadened, so that we now have options our ancestors could never have dreamed of. Saying no in pre-history often meant death; we had little choice, where now, we do.

If that is so, why do we not see that saying no is something that should be valued and encouraged? Why do we, as consumers, punish establishments that don’t cater to our every whim? We talk about how we want our customers to have a magical experience, not just make a purchase. Why do we, as customers, really care about this? Why is it so important to us that the person making our coffee never appear to be having a bad day. Why is empathy for the person fixing our meal so difficult for so many of us to comprehend?

We don’t like being told no. Many companies believe that promotions occur within a meritocracy, such that the more deserving have higher ranking titles and are therefore empowered to set policy and make decisions, where lower ranking members are less deserving, and therefore, must accept blindly the will of those in charge. Most of us have worked in such an environment, and we watch decisions being made by executives who have no idea of how the organization actually functions and what our customers actually care about. Saying no to bad decisions in these organizations is a fast way to find yourself looking for work elsewhere. As painful as that experience can be, the reality is, it’s probably for the best for everyone for that to occur.

Saying no can end your relationship with an organization, but some companies cultivate cultures that are so toxic that the people who work there are fearful, not just of losing their job, but of the abuse they will receive, for saying no. The worst are those organizations where the entire concept of no is unheard of. I remember one of my summer jobs during college, a family owned business for generations, hearing a story of the recently retired former CEO, that his board of directors never made a choice without a unanimous vote approving the decision. Stop and think about what message that sent to the entire organization:

  • We must all believe the same way; dissent is not welcome here.
  • Our egos are too fragile to deal with anyone not like us.
  • We have no courage to see the world differently.
  • We will remain paralyzed instead of making hard choices.

If you knew the company and what has happened to them in the years since, it becomes easy to see how an unwillingness to say no leads you down disastrous paths.

When no becomes an option, we open ourselves to possibilities that we’ve never previously considered. It’s easy to see this with simple math. If there is only one answer, yes, and we add a second choice, now, we now have double the possibilities that we had previously. That doesn’t mean that picking no needs to be something done equally as often as picking yes; decision should be made on the merits of the outcomes enabled by the choice.

Adding a no option also opens the possibilities to other choices. Too many times, we see everything as a binary choice; we’re either doing this or not. Yet, there are shades of gray between those two poles which can also be explored. Eventually, we see not just a line, or even a spectrum, but a whole host of opportunities stretching out before us, the width and breadth of combinations, which give us more possibilities of success than we could have previously believed existed.

It’s not just the presence of choice, but the personage of choice, that matters. If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice that the word ‘we’ has been the pronoun of choice for this post, not as a stylistic decision, but because the decision to consider no as an option needs to be we, not just I. If the only person who can say no is the one at the top, then it still isn’t really an option for the vast number of people in the organization. Saying no opens up options for all levels of the organization; it can’t be something that is reserved for “those who matter.” Its power is exponentially diluted with every level of the organization that is denied its use.

No isn’t meant to be a way to stop conversation, but is something to enhance it. It cannot become mere gainsaying of whatever the other person believes. It cannot become a convenient way to avoid difficult situations. It cannot be a crutch employed to shore up weak arguments that haven’t been well thought out. Using no must be as well considered as the decision to enable everyone to consider using it.

In the end, when everyone is empowered to say no, you are sending a signal to all parts of the organization that you believe in your team, that you trust their judgement and that the work they do really matters.