Michael MacDonald

Push Back, Say No

In Business on September 9, 2009 at 8:00 am

I know it’s hard to say it but you can do it. You’re a smart cookie. Let’s try it together…


Good. That was easy. Let’s try a real example…

Sorry for the late notice but can you drop everything and implement this new whizz-bang feature by the end of the day?


What?! That’s not the right answer and you know it, so why do you keep making this mistake? Why do you throw common sense out the window when your boss asks the impossible or the unreasonable, or short circuits your (and their own) processes and procedures? They hired you to be the expert in your field, not the yes man. If they expect you to be the yes man then get another job. How often do you think you can say yes when you really want to say no before you start becoming a disgruntled employee. You’ll end up bitching about your manager, complaining, not caring about the quality of your work, and eventually you’ll leave anyway.

So, be honest and true to yourself. Push back and say no.

Sometimes, executives make unreasonable demands because everyone says yes to them so they end up with unrealistic expectations. Take a look at your typical project milestones – they’re usually badly underestimated. Why? Because when an executive asks “how long will it take to implement that?” before you’ve had a chance to really scope out a project, you end up giving them an answer you think they’ll find acceptable. You end up trying to guess how long they would like the project to take. So instead of saying 12 months you say 6 and you end up hoping that it’ll all work out in the end. It doesn’t. Be realistic. Tell it straight. If they don’t like it, fine. It’s better they hear it upfront than you having to explain why the project has missed its deadline 6 months later. Fail fast!

Let’s try another…

There’s a board meeting tomorrow and they want to see a demo of the software, can you stay back tonight and get that ready for tomorrow? NO!

Be flexible with your work. Help out when you can but draw a line. You can’t and shouldn’t shoulder the burden of other people’s slackness or ineptitude. Unfortunately, if you help out too many times, people may take advantage. Say no and teach them how to fish.

If you are a manager, it is even more important that you learn to say no. This word should be in your vocabulary. It is more important than yes. When you say yes to something you are effectively saying no to something else. Use no more often. Your team relies on you to say no at the right times. If you are a yes man, your team will suffer, whinging goes up and morale goes down. It’ll be fine for a little while as you live off the goodwill of your team but if you keep saying yes, eventually your team will say no, with their mouths or their feet.

As a team, you only have the capacity to do so much. Once you are committed, you have to say no to starting anything new until you have the capacity to take it on. Otherwise, you’ll end up overworking your team and setting unrealistic client expectations.

As a team, you should have your work planned out for the short-term. Say no to anything that attempts to scuttle your plans. It’s too disruptive and often the new pieces of work are knee-jerk reaction tasks that supposedly need to be done asap without proper planning or thought. They undermine your methodologies, your processes and your focus. They often leave you without the opportunity to provide input. They are often a fait accompli, quick and dirty solutions upstairs just wants you to implement straight away irrespective of the obvious problems you can see. Push back, say no!

If you continually end each day failing to achieve the number one task you originally set out to do, then you need to learn to say no. No to others who wanted to interrupt and divert your day. Also say no to yourself. Stop checking email looking for something to distract you from your number 1 job. Saying no is in your best interest and it’s also in the best interest of the business. You need to focus on the most important task, the task that you were hired to do that utilises your skill and talent.

I favour agile methodologies for software development. But being “agile” is not about changing everything at the drop of a hat or a CEO’s whim. Saying yes all the time is simply being reactionary and it leads to chaos, failed projects, dsyfunctional teams, poor work-life balance, poor health, and grey hairs at an early age.

So, push back. Demand the respect that you deserve. Say no!

See also:

  1. A good read Michael, and so very true. I promise to try it out today!

  2. […] This worked because of the environment I found myself in. It was very reactive and the organisation lacked clear direction. We were trying to do too many things all at once and everything was a top priority. There was no one pushing back and saying no. […]

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