Saying No & Behaving No

Saying No & Behaving No

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My kid is a year and a half old. She is accumulating language at a startling rate. A few weeks ago, she started saying “no.” No has quickly become her favorite word. She uses it to mean everything from “I’d prefer to have sugar, please,” to “get that toothbrush away from me.” Sometimes she really means no, but when she really really means it, she doesn’t say the word. She behaves no by turning her head, or, worse, swatting the offending thing away.

“Behaving No” is what toddlers do when they don’t have the words they need to explain themselves and their needs.

This applies to the workplace, too. Metal Toad has cultural values of helpfulness, curiosity, and respect. Our heartfelt company values creates a dynamic where well-intentioned people (us) say yes to a request, but then Behave No. We sometimes blow deadlines, need to be reminded, and require follow-ups. We really, really, really want to say yes. We really do!

Case in point: a few weeks ago, Metal Toad sponsored a leadership training with Thomas Cox who, before the training, sent out an email questionnaire for us to fill out. Out of nine of us in the room, only four sent back answers. The other five (myself included) didn’t respond at all. Worse than saying we would not be able to complete the task, we behaved our no, which made Thomas feel unsupported and undervalued.

The questionnaire was a test, Tom admitted, to see how our group behaved. We didn’t behave very well at all...

Tom went on to explain how Behaving No erodes team trust, wastes cognitive cycles, creates misunderstandings, and fosters inefficiency. It makes individuals feel undervalued and unsupported. And, as Tom pointed out, having integrity in the world means doing what you say you’re going to do. Behaving No erodes that integrity.

He suggested that we, as a group adopt the following behavior:

  • Say no when we mean no. Don’t rely on behaving no and hope that whoever has asked us for something will forget that they’ve asked us. Mainly, they won’t forget, and behaving no requires them to waste cycles to remember to ask us again.
  • Say yes, but make sure you’re saying yes to an agreed upon deadline. If tomorrow won’t work, say “I can’t do tomorrow, but I’ll get it to you Wednesday by 5 p.m.”
  • Ask for clarity. Don’t say yes to something that you don’t understand.
  • Act with integrity. If you say yes, then Behave Yes.

How about you and your team(s)? Do you Behave No?

Date posted: October 3, 2016


Victoria, thank you for writing this. For leaders, the most important example they can set is integrity, literally, having one's words match one's actions. I struggle at this too, at times. It helps to remember that most of us would rather receive a sincere "no" than a weak or false "yes" -- or worse, silence. If we'd rather receive that, wouldn't others also rather receive it from us? Remembering that helps me have the courage to say "no" when I know in my heart I'm going to end up behaving "no" anyway... ;-)

Integrity is so important. Not just "saying" yes and "behaving" yes, but owning the times when no ends up happening and learning from the experience for the next time. I've also learned that anything is better than nothing. "I don't have an update at this time" is an update. "I don't have an answer at this time" is an answer. Both followed by "I'll get you an update/answer by foo." Communicating nothing is better than not communicating.

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