Why good leaders say "No"

25 August 2017 -

BusinessmanSayingNoNegativity, doubt and hesitation are the signs of a leader with integrity

Svend Brinkmann

The contemporary world lauds certainty as never before. Certainty is good – doubt is bad.

The paradox is, of course, that of worshipping certainty while claiming everything constantly needs to develop and change. Maybe we worship certainty precisely because of the lack of it in our non-stop modern world?

From primary school to university, we learn to ‘know’. But we also need to learn to doubt. We need to learn to hesitate. We need to learn to reconsider.

If you are not in doubt, try thinking whether you should be. The point is not that you should always say no, or always be in doubt, but that, if you are, then it is an entirely legitimate state to be in.

Virtually all political outrages are committed by high-powered males, confident that they know the truth.

‘We know there are weapons of mass destruction!’; ‘We know Jews are inferior!’; ‘We know that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a necessity!’

When it comes to the important issues in politics, ethics and the art of living, it is human in itself to be hesitant and have doubts. This is actually worth standing firm on in a risk society, where the answers – and even sometimes the problems – are unknown.

Ideally, workplaces should have hat racks with equal numbers of both No and Yes hats. By that, I mean that it should be just as legitimate to point out why something won’t work as to meekly acquiesce.

Initiatives are regularly pushed ahead in the name of progress, often leading to a considerable waste of time and effort. Once you have finally upskilled to cope with the new systems and routines, restructuring comes along (again!).

To allow the dust to settle, it should be standard organisational practice to reject a certain number of initiatives every month. Managers shouldn’t just get all excited and present staff with ‘new visions’ to be given the nod. They should also pose the question: what unnecessary stuff can we cut out?

There are things to which it actually makes sense to say no. It makes sense to say no to other projects until you’ve met all your prior commitments – no matter how exciting a new one might sound.

It may be difficult because you don’t want to miss out. I recommend that you turn down at least five things every day. This is perhaps a bit steep, especially if the Yes hat has been wielded in place for a long, long time.

So try saying no to something you’ve long thought barking or unnecessary but kept doing anyway.

For example, lots of workplaces insist on seemingly interminable meetings, which many of us fear – and with good cause. Try saying no to a meeting, and explain that you want to get on with your work. Say no with a smile.

If regularly saying no proves too much, try deploying doubt and hesitation to ensure that reflection and reconsideration are incorporated into your daily practice. Instead of immediately saying yes, try saying: ‘I’ll have to think about that.’

Saying ‘I don’t want to do that’ conveys strength and integrity. Only robots always say yes. There is good reason to stand firm and resist the coercive positivity that permeates modern society and tries to convince you that negativity is undesirable and dangerous.

This is an edited extract from Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-improvement Craze by Svend Brinkmann (Polity, 2017)

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