Canadian Consulting Engineer

Learning to Say “No”

Several years ago a young engineer at the New Brunswick Department of Transportation was promoted to the position of District Engineer. The promotion took this junior professional out of headquarters and put him in rural New Brunswick -...

August 1, 2011   By By Andrew Steeves, P.Eng.

Several years ago a young engineer at the New Brunswick Department of Transportation was promoted to the position of District Engineer. The promotion took this junior professional out of headquarters and put him in rural New Brunswick – well away from the scrutiny (and support) of senior staff. As the day of his posting approached the young man was filled with an unsettling combination of excitement and terror. Sensing the engineer’s plight, one of the grizzled veterans of the department pulled him aside and gave him this advice: “Young man, you will do fine as long as you remember the meaning of one word … and that word is ‘no.'”

I heard this story many years ago. The “young engineer” was himself by then a grizzled veteran when he told me the story. He had gone on to have a very successful career and retired as a well-respected senior manager in the New Brunswick transportation department. He never forgot the advice.

I, too, have remembered the story because it illustrates a management truth that I have witnessed again and again. “Yes” is easy: “No” is hard.  Soon after being promoted, every manager is faced with the necessity of saying “no.” Some of us delay that day as long as possible. We postpone decisions, we pass decisions to the next level of management and — unfortunately — we even say “yes” when we know it is the wrong answer.  However, try as we might we cannot avoid the inevitable: the day will come when we have to say “no.” That is the day when the apprenticeship begins.

All managers face a dilemma: do we want to be liked or do we want to be respected? There is a right choice, and the clue to that choice is the word “no.” People do not like being told that they will not get the promotion, that their raise will not be as large as requested, that they will not be sent to a conference. And when a manager has to turn such requests down he is not popular and, for a time, he may not be liked. Being disliked is not pleasant and makes us uncomfortable.

Management is not a Popularity Contest. You and I were not promoted to make people happy: we were promoted for the wellbeing of the organization that hired us. The rationale for all our decisions should be the wellbeing of the organization and the group, not our own comfort.

We should remember that management is not an Unpopularity Contest either. There are good ways and bad ways to say “no.”  The good ways are more difficult than the bad ways. The good ways take time: saying “no” in person rather than by e-mail; saying it at a meeting rather than by a quick call; providing the rationale as well as the result; being prepared for follow-up questions rather than laying down a cut and dried decision.

By making a decision for the right reasons and delivering that message in a respectful manner, a manager’s decision can be respected.  I may not agree with your decision but I can agree with your rationale and your right to decide. For a manager respect is earned; being liked is an accident of fate.

Indeed, it is likely best for a new manager to get his or her first “no” out of the way quickly for there is no better way of demonstrating that “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

The most effective “no” a new manager can make is also one of the most difficult: it is to say “no” to himself.  In my career at ADI/exp it was my observation that all the successful managers asked no more of their staff than they demanded of themselves. Decisions regarding overtime or delayed vacation, holding difficult meetings or delivering unpleasant news to clients, were all tasks done by the manager – not passed to subordinates.  Extra hours for staff were extra hours for the manager as well.  There were no perks: I did not work for a successful manager who was not willing to do his own photocopying or who attended more golf events than his staff. These managers were also leaders.

Management should be more difficult, not easier, than being a tech or professional. It all starts with the word “no.”

As is often the case, the grizzled veteran was right. cce

Andrew Steeves, P.Eng. is a strategic advisor with exp Services in Fredericton, N.B. He is also an editorial advisor with Canadian Consulting Engineer magazine.

Andrew Steeves


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