By Miles Davis, Ph.D., Dean of the Harry F. Byrd, Jr. School of Business
My specialty is entrepreneurship: everything from a technology start-up to a home-based sole proprietorship. I’ve studied what makes entrepreneurial endeavors successful and what makes them crash and burn. I’ve been fascinated to realize that those mindsets, skills, and practices that lead to entrepreneurial success often also lead to happiness and satisfaction with life in general. Today I want to reflect on the value of trying to say YES instead of NO.
There’s power in our words
If you’ve ever had a boss who always said NO, you know it can stifle you and make you feel negatively towards your boss. Many speakers say we should say NO more often, but I want to take a different perspective. YES can be a way to develop people. NO ends discussion, stifles creativity, kills innovation, stops learning, and puts a box around initiative. Don’t let NO be your reflex reaction. It’s rarely informative.
To compound the problem of using NO too often, most leaders don’t take the time to tell people why their answer is NO. Admonishment is not a teachable moment. As a leader, when you teach someone how to get to YES, you may well have done the most important thing you can do to contribute to his or her development. You’ve certainly added value to your organization.
Sir Richard Branson said: “I have enjoyed life a lot more by saying YES than by saying NO.” In my own experience, saying YES is more fun and allows people to develop. Being able to get to YES is a more useful tool than saying NO.
Questions that can get you to YES
By saying YES in the right way, you can help people refine their thinking, develop in their process, understand your expectations, and advance the development of the organization. Where leadership is concerned, a slow YES is often more instructive and ultimately more productive than a fast NO.
When you’re tempted to give NO as an answer, consider these responses:
- “Before I give you an answer, I’d like to know what your thought process was so I can understand how you got to this question.” This helps them to self-select an exit strategy if they’re not ready to answer.
- “Let’s peel back the layers on this issue. Can you help me better understand your logic on this issue.”
- “That’s an interesting idea. Who else is on board with this? Have you articulated this? Have you road tested it?”
- “How does this add value to our core mission?” If they’re bringing you issues that aren’t aligned, maybe you haven’t communicated your mission. Or maybe they’re saying they don’t agree with that mission. Either way, you’ve got some other work to do.
- “Help me connect the dots on this one. Why will this take us where we want to go?”
- “Have you identified all the risks? What are your contingency plans for things that don’t progress as expected?” Make sure they identify the risks.
- “What are the downsides of not moving forward with this?” There is no such thing as inaction. By doing nothing, you have chosen to do something and you need to understand the downside of that.
These questions are designed to develop the person’s thinking, and they make you a slightly different person, too. You are treating people as colleagues and worthy of your attention.
When NO is more common than YES
If you’re finding yourself having to say NO a lot, you should look at your own leadership ability. It can mean your vision is not understood, your team is not aligned, or your talent is not performing up to par. We hire people because we think they’re fully capable, so we shouldn’t be stopping them by saying NO all the time. You may not be teaching, mentoring, communicating or leading as effectively as possible.
A strong leader has the ability to collaborate with others, and the questions above allow that process to happen. They remove the judgmentalism and allow them to stretch their thinking. Often their enthusiasm exceeds their experience, so you want to develop them. By asking these questions, you are trusting your team. We all want people around us who are not afraid to bring us their ideas for opportunity or innovation.
The world is in a turbulent state. Things are changing. If people are afraid to come to you with new ideas, then how are you going to grow your business? So many of the great ideas in one place were rejected elsewhere.
Why do people normally say NO?
- They believe it keeps them from wasting time. We don’t know what our employees know. Every successful leader I know has been willing to accept feedback from the people around them.
- They think that by saying NO, they are managing risk. But really, you increase risk by always saying NO. You blind yourself to the opportunities that exist. You create information deficits, because people stop telling you things. You increase your blind spots. This increases your risk. Where information is not shared, it can’t be used.
- Some people think saying NO builds character. While adversity can build character (though it reveals character more than builds it), so does empathy and understanding. Life has enough adversities. We don’t have to continue to pound on people to make them stronger. You hired them to do the job. Extend something more useful—understanding. If it still doesn’t make sense, help them understand why.
- They think saying NO helps people focus and keeps them from biting off more than they can chew. They like to imagine they’re protecting them. But if they’re coming up with ideas, they’re already extending their thinking.
While saying NO might be more convenient, progress is better accomplished with effective communication, effective collaboration, prudent resourcing…not by saying NO. Rather than kill something with a quick NO, a good leader uses every adverse scenario as an opportunity to grow the individual and organization.
Great leaders help people get to YES
There’s nothing we need more today than people who can think through issues. Without them, we face mediocracy. We want people who can look at a problem from a different perspective. As leaders we need to cultivate this in young people, and we can do it by saying YES more than we say NO. It’s not an industry conversation. It’s an across-the-board conversation. We must start with our children by asking them these questions.
The world is changing so fast. What we need are people who can think and people who can make decisions. YES is a catalyst that begins—not ends—the conversation. It causes people to extend their thinking. It inspires rather than demoralizes. It encourages trust rather than doubt.
YES may be the most powerful word in your vocabulary. Use it wisely and use it often.