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Effective managers know how and when to say 'no'

Focus is about saying no.

-- Steve Jobs

I gave a speech recently to a group of about 100 managers in a large organization. As I frequently do, I started my talk by asking them to share some of the challenges they were having. This allows me to tailor my comments to a subject that is relevant to the group.

One manager in the back of the room said his biggest challenge was that he cannot say no, and about 20 other people in the room nodded their heads in agreement. The general consensus around the room was that they all struggled with knowing how to say no, and when they did, they felt rejected by the person who asked and by saying yes, they felt overwhelmed.

One lady shared a story about a time she said yes to someone's request for help when she knew she probably should not. Because she lacked the courage to say no, she missed a deadline on a large project that had a significant impact on her promotability.

Many people suffer from the inability to say no, and it can be so costly. The woman in my seminar used her time to help with a project of questionable value and ended up missing an important deadline on a project of her own.

I believe the problem people have with saying no is that they feel they are

going to be rejected or not liked for it.

However, more often than not, the person asking for help is not thinking that way at all. They simply want some help.

Learning how to say no is achieved through practice. You just have to get comfortable saying it. In one of my classes, I asked the participants to say no to two things every day for a week and write down what it felt like. They discovered it was not as painful as they thought and they quickly got used to saying no.

That said, it is important to learn how to say no in a way that does not offend people. When I assigned this exercise, I gave the participants a few suggestions on how to give kind and thoughtful "no" answers. I recommended they start off by thanking the person for asking then explain that they just do not have the time to help them now. It is also a good idea to offer some suggestions for other ways they can get help. This shows you want to help the person but just cannot do it right now. For example:

Thanks for asking me to help you with this project, Jane. I am honored that you would think of me. Unfortunately, I just do not have the time to help you as I have a big project I am working on. Bill has an outline of the work that you want done. Would you like me to contact him and ask him to share that outline with you?

As you practice saying no, just remember to be kind.

Jerry Osteryoung, a consultant to businesses, is Jim Moran professor of entrepreneurship (emeritus) and professor of finance (emeritus) at Florida State University. Reach him at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com.

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