The Hardest Word: Why Saying No Is Key To Your Long-Term Success

We’re all conditioned to avoid conflict and say yes, even to counterproductive requests and assignments. Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk of creative leadership lab Swim argue for the power of no and explain why and how saying that little word can lead to longer-term success.

It was pretty much a typical Friday at Ogilvy Toronto. The whole creative department was crazy busy, when another big project dropped out of the sky. Scanning the stressed-out teams overdue for a decent weekend break, this was not the best news ever. At least this assignment was a gem, and I quickly decided the best art director for the job was Luke*—my go-to miracle worker.

"Luuuuke . . . hey, just how busy are you?"
"Too busy to create a logo for a new coffee? The client’s giving us the whole brand identity assignment; they just pulled the job from Tap—totally blew it. But now the calendar’s brutal. The VP wants to see thinking in a week. I know, it’s really tight."

Pause. Eyes shut tight. Then: big smile. "Like I’m going to say no to my next gold Pencil. I don’t think so."

I knew he’d do a great job, as always. He lived for work like this. With so little time for a process that would normally take at least twice as long, I resolved to give him space and wait until the day before the command performance to see his solutions.

Anyone looking on as Luke took me through his designs late the following Thursday would have noticed the color draining from my face as each logo was worse than the one before it. Nine, 10, 11. Nope, there’s no 12. The best of them wouldn’t get a nod from my 9th grade art teacher. I knew my talented employee wasn’t suddenly a hack. The explanation was now horrifyingly obvious: He never really had the time to squeeze in this job. The meeting would have to be cancelled. Merde.

Why didn’t Luke just say no, explaining he was stretched too thin? It was a classic case of yes-icide, that self-sabotaging reflex to please rather than say the much harder word: no.

We all do it. Almost everyone with a pulse is conflict-averse. We don’t want to let people down, deal with unhappy faces, look weak, risk being branded a slacker. We fear the judgment, the loss of popularity, repercussions real and imagined. From the nervous grad new to the workforce to the experienced and highly successful, we tell ourselves we’ll get it done, we’ll be heroes; it’ll all work out in the end.

I’ve said yes when I should have said no many times myself, sometimes with plenty at stake. I gave a green light to a hire for a top position on one of our biggest accounts when the senior client threatened to pull the business if we didn’t get the opening filled quickly. I wasn’t convinced the accomplished person we had in front of us was the right fit; I wanted more time to be sure the casting was right. But in a stare-down with a hyperventilating managing director, I caved. They got their leader. A very bad one, as it turned out. Hindsight being 20-20 and all, I don’t think taking more time would’ve cost us the account; but the wrong hire had an impact arguably worse than the loss of that business would have had.

The yes that’s a short-term fix and averts displeasure often sabotages the longer-term goals. When you consider the much greater penalty of wearing a bad result, it’s really worth a rethink in that moment of decision. The boss that’s kicking cans for an hour when she doesn’t get her way is nothing compared to the moment of hearing you’ve blown the client relationship. Or worse.

Yes-icide—-that tragic, mediocrity-fuelling choice—-is preventable. The next time you’re under pressure to do the wrong thing (which usually happens when it’s urgent), take a deep breath and the time you need to think through yes or no. Ask yourself:

  • Is my yes aligned with achieving the long-term goal?
  • Is yes aligned with the brand’s values? My company’s? With mine?
  • Does the data support a yes?

No to any of the above likely means no is the right answer. Which doesn’t make saying it any less daunting. You can probably find the conviction you need by looking at which choice carries the greater penalty. Ask yourself:

  • What’s the worst that can happen if I say yes?
  • What’s the worst that can happen if I say no?

How you deliver an unwelcome no is the difference between being the messenger they want to shoot and a person who’s appreciated for saving everyone from a bad decision. Painting a vivid picture of the consequences of saying yes can help open people’s eyes to the other side of the question. Make them feel the full weight of yes. (It’s a step most of us don’t think to take in the heat of the moment, but my art director could have stopped me cold with vivid description of C-minus designs limping into the client’s boardroom.) Then be part of the solution. If you have a different approach to the problem, share it. If you don’t, pitch in to figure it out.

The brave soul who says the hardest word may pay a price in the short term. My partner Janet Kestin and I have both been thrown off accounts, and early in her career, she was once fired over too many no’s. But when you become known for having the guts to speak your mind, put a stake in the ground for the sake of everyone’s success and find better ways to navigate the rough waters, you’ll land as a person people respect, a leader. Oh, one more bit of advice: The next time your employee tells you no for all the right reasons, thank them for it.

*A composite character.

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the cofounders of Swim, a creative leadership training lab that works with people in advertising, marketing, technology, and beyond to create fearless leaders. They were previously the co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto, the agency behind Dove "Evolution" and other famous work for Shreddies, Maxwell House, and others. Their career-long involvement in mentoring, teaching, and training resulted in Pick Me, an advice book for advertising professionals based on their popular blog, Ask Jancy. They are currently writing a business book on women, life, and work for Harper Collins.

[Yarn Strings: Madlen via Shutterstock, Workload: RollingFishays via Shutterstock | Flickr users Horia Varlan, Angelo Amboldi]

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  • IF the new opportunity is really worthwhile, why not hire a free-lance designer and get on with it rather than overloading current and already over-worked colleagues? There are other ways to say Yes, maybe, rather than No, IF it really matters. Reminds me of a child asking a parent to do something and the parent says "maybe," which to the child means the same thing as No. Say Yes when you can, if it's appropriate. Exercise some critical thinking and informed judgment.

  • Perseus Wong

    "...At least this assignment was a gem, and I quickly decided the best art director for the job was Luke*--my go-to miracle worker.
    'Luuuuke . . . hey, just how busy are you?' "

    Sorry, Ladies. This is more of an indictment of your project and personnel management skills than Luke's inability to say 'no'. That you refer to Luke as a 'go-to miracle worker' (a patronizing honorific that all art directors hate) indicates that this is not the first time you've readily said yes to your superior's imperial demands for 'miracles' because that's what they are to you.
    Just 'Miracles'. Good design to you is not a consequence of the necessary time and exertion required for analysis and reflection.

    Hence, TWELVE Logos for an initial pitch. Why? Not even the Big Bang and quantum theory could dream up (or deemed it necessary) to design a rainbow with that many spectrum.

    And to your condescending remarks about Luke's deteriorating ability to deliver multiple versions. Not even the most battled hardened soldier could perform twelve chin-ups without struggling at the tenth instance.

    I also DOUBT your 9th grade art teacher required little Janet and Nancy to create twelve extraneous iterations. In fact, Luke might be better off having your more sensible, empathetic 9th grade art teacher as a client or a creative director.

    I sincerely hope the Luke has found his way into a more self empowering, creatively nurturing place.

    This article ought to be retitled "How to stop enabling CDs and AMs who have poor time and personnel management skills ".

  • Ecnirp Yecart

    Being an employee, who worked 13+ hrs days and rotating weekends, saying "no was not really an option. We had a small, tiny team which supported the global database. I tried many ways to ask my prior manager for more help, what was my priorities, hire more people... long story short... (my) manager did not like being questioned these items. She would always say there is no budget, which I am sure there wasn't. I tried to convince her to write a business justification for more budget but that was apparently out of line for me to do. I would find ways to streamline processes, while making sure the laws were followed and even rolled out a tool which enhanced our teams productivity probably by 100% however, the workload for our tiny team was so overbearing it didn't matter. If another team made a mistake, the cascading effects would impact our team tenfold. We tried to explain the importance of this but they just didn't seem to really take note or care. I still kept up, trying my best to help with training them until our reviews went out and everyone wrote a bad review about me because of my constant reminders of how to properly do certain things because of this, this, this and this. Our team was held responsible for cleaning up others messes. So when it came to helping another team or doing others projects, if you said no, you were considered a trouble maker, not a team player and your own team members would turn on each other. It was all really sad. ... and sadly, this is the short version of what happened at my previous position.

  • Andrew Kirby

    Sense when is this the employees responsibility?  Part of proper management is recognizing these sorts of things before one even asks.  If you lack that empathy, then well... create a rubric to keep up with what you are asking of your employees, or maybe being a manager isn't the best thing for you.

  • Cedricj

    Saying no to one's is a delicate balancing act between selecting your battle carefully and not giving up ground on what you consider a deal breaker. However, it is how one says no that counts. Assertively and respectfully

  • Know your team

    Although I agree that Luke should have said NO, I think you have an a bigger underlying issue that the creative director didn't know the work load of the team and could not say NO also. This request should have never reached Luke IMHO.

  • Poor Luke

    Interesting article and I totally get the point, but the anecdote provided here is, unfortunately not so insightful, but rather upsetting.  She could have assessed Luke's workload situation further closely and have asked extension to the deadline or say "no" to client herself, instead of blaming the whole result on her subordinate, if she realized it is the manager's responsibility at the end.  Poor Luke, at least he tried to please her.

  • Blueskyvisions

    "Yes, but..." works better than "no." Yes, I can do that for you, but here is where the work will suffer and here is how other projects are aversely affected. ;-)

  • Larry McAllister II

    This is definitely advice that people early in their careers need to hear. It can definitely save them, or at least shield them, from early burnout.

  • Eric Pomert

    Let's not forget that if one eschews yes-icide or no-icide, there's always guess-icide...

  • BigFishPresentations

    We totally agree! Check out our CEO's Ted Talk on how saying 'no' made our company successful: <iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="315" src="//" width="560"></iframe>