How long has it been since you heard a software developer say “No”, or maybe “I disagree”? If you can think of a few recent occasions where a developer did say this, I’d take the bet that it was usually the same person. Across our industry, software teams and individuals are not saying “No” enough, and we’re delivering lower quality software to our customers as a result.
To illustrate the typical response I get on this subject, recently I was asked to give a presentation on “The Power of No”. In mentioning the title of the presentation to some of my peers, some of their responses were:
“I bet you’re hoping [your product owner] is not going to the presentation”
“I hope that when you’re talking about [no], it will be in the right context”
The first comment is joking in nature, but it does indicate a rise in anxiety levels of the commenter. The second comment comes from fear. The commenter fears that if they were to use the word “No”, then it would cause conflict, an uncomfortable situation, possibly a heated discussion, and maybe feelings of rejection. The commenter is then attempting to warn me off talking about the subject, with the possible intention of protecting me.
It’s time however to recognise what underlying emotions and fears we hold when we say “No” to someone. Your opinion counts. Particularly when you’re a knowledge worker, you’re employed due to your experience and opinions. You’re expected to navigate future problems drawing from your expertise and knowledge. If you cannot bring these opinions and experience into discussions with others, you’re not fulfilling your side of the bargain. Particularly for leaders, not being able to say “No” is a life threatening illness for your team’s health.
So, how did “No” become such a dirty word? I think it comes from a combination of society, schooling, family dynamics, social structures, and how we work. There are too many instances in our lives where people or organisations are drumming into us the need to conform. Now, conforming is an element of success in many circles, so the advice and intention is good. When we behave at school, when we listen intently to the teacher, when we follow the rules, when we strive to make our teachers proud, then we end up with teachers who respond positively to us. We get pleasantries and we get along, when we need something, we get support. However, we’ve swung the pendulum way too far to the extreme. Hearing the same message and receiving the same pressures for so long, our brain connects “No” with adverse effects and this is being continually reinforced over time.
In our past, we may have connected the word “No” with rejection. We may have occasionally stood up for something we believed in, and our friends and family may have rejected us in response. Humans are social beings, and belonging to a tribe enables us to draw upon more resources, more love, more support and protection when we need it. Ostracizing people from the group is a very effective way to get them to conform. It works, and it’s very powerful. Even the threat is sometimes enough to put people in line. These occasions from the past can teach the brain to relate saying “No” to be ostracized from the group.
What tends to grow out of the rejection are feelings of anxiety. Anxiety is an effective way for the brain to protect ourselves from undesirable situations. It’s a great defence mechanism, and can benefit us when it’s used in the right context. However, in some situations, our brains might be sabotaging us. If we’ve learnt that offending someone or disagreeing with someone can cause conflict and uncomfortable situations, our brain will use anxiety to protect us from going there in the future. When we allow ourselves to be led by this anxiety, we lose the power of “No”.
Now for the big one, this one word will send chills down your spine: Shame. Just reading the word itself can be enough to generate fear and anxiety. The word reminds us of all of those times we took a risk and failed. It reminds us of the time that we stepped out courageously to approach someone of the opposite sex, and got rejected. Sometimes shame can be a tool used by others to put us down, or to control us. If shame is a big part of your family upbringing, it can really screw with your ability to say “No” to others.
If we can overcome all of these factors, here’s what the power of “No” can give us. We project confidence. Particularly as a leader, in times of strife, trouble or stress, projecting confidence allows your people to move ahead and solve problems. If your people are always trying to figure out when you’re going to crack, it distracts from the task at hand. Projecting confidence is a core ingredient to having happy stakeholders. If stakeholders don’t believe you have things under control, they will be forever stressing about the project, they’ll be continually asking for updates, and they’ll be always asking for second opinions. Your opinion counts for more when you’re confident in your delivery. If you want to be listened to, you need to project confidence.
The power of “No” conveys trust and integrity. When your “No” means “No”, and your “Yes” means “Yes”, people trust you. They know from previous conversations that you tell it like it is. People won’t have to spend brain power trying to figure out whether you’re telling the truth or not. High levels of trust allows people to move faster. Trust speeds up communication. People no longer need to second guess things. Having trust in a person or their opinion means that people can build upon your opinion to create bigger and better things. If the foundation is always in question, it will either fall like a house of cards, or you’ll spend far too much time worrying when it will happen.
So let’s look at some practical ways to get to “No”. Next time you’re in a situation that brings on fear or anxiety, I want you to sit in it for a while, recognise it, feel it, embrace it. Question yourself, is this anxiety legitimately protecting me from something dangerous, or is it sabotaging me? Even asking yourself if there’s a possibility of sabotage is a step forward. Now, once you’ve practiced identifying the sabotage, you can employ some self-talk and tell your brain to “shove it”. When your brain is not helping, you need to take control and get your brain onto a new track. When you step forward, you can’t look back. Don’t second guess yourself, just watch for the symptoms and use them to help you the next time around.
D.G.A.F. Sometimes you just need to care less about what other people think of you. Avoiding “No” just gets you a lot of surface level relationships. By telling it like it is, you build trust with people, and you start to see people taking a position for or against you. But don’t worry, the people that move away from you, aren’t the type of people you’d really want to hang around with anyway. The best part of the deal is that the people who move closer to you will want to connect with you on a deeper level. You’ll enjoy relationships so much more than you ever did, just by embracing the word “No”.
Embrace failure. If you’re not failing, then you’re not learning. You’re going to fail, just realise it upfront and accept it. If you’re avoiding failure, then you’re not being true to yourself or others. You’re capping your potential. Make failure your friend, visit it regularly, and relish in the lessons that it will give you in return.
Using the power of “No” brings an abundance of opportunities and relationships. There will be many opportunities to practice saying “No” in the future, and look forward to getting better and better at it. If you fail a few times, don’t stress about it. You have your whole life ahead of you, and you will quickly lose track of the number of times you practice saying “No”.
Next time you’re in a situation where you fear your opinion will be unpopular, remind yourself of the power of “No”, and put yourself out there. If you’re a leader, you have a whole team of people waiting for you to say “No”, and when you do, they will feel supported and relieved that their leader has their back and can take a stand when it’s needed. If you’re not considered a “leader” by job title, you’re still a leader. There are many people around you waiting for you to take a stand on something important. Sometimes taking a stand and saying “No” is the formation of a future leader, so get cracking.