How to Prevent Death by Yes

Am sure everyone can relate – saying ‘no’ is hard, even if it is to a friend. It is that awful moment of feeling for a split second, being little less popular, of letting someone down and in some extreme cases, of feeling like a total jerk. So we find ourselves saying ‘yes’ – and sometimes saying ‘yes’ too often, too easily. This is the case as most people do not like conflict. By saying ‘yes’ we put on blinders on ourselves which temporarily gets us through the day… but in the long term, has very damaging effects – we develop the inability to say ‘no’.

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In a professional environment, saying ‘no’ is often far more difficult. We dread to anticipate the recipient’s response – would they get defensive, feel patronised, disrespected, unappreciated? So we learn rather quickly to be conflict-averse in the workplace because we see around us that disagreeing simply does not do any good.

We continuously subject ourselves to this status quo. We would rather let good ideas remain unspoken, unconsciously fuelling functional silos, while leaders do not get the right information they need to make key business decisions because people are too afraid to speak up, for fear of being “shot down”. We carry on with this state of mediocrity….self-assuming sabotage.

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Yet there are times when ‘no’ is really the best answer.  Rather than accept this roadmap to nowhere, we can say ‘no’ and be part of the solution. It can take some bravery to say the words, but it can also be an opportunity to build trust. Most of the time, we are too quick to consider all things that could go wrong if we say ‘no’ and end up saying ‘yes’, instead.

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Even more true in Eastern collectivist cultures, direct confrontation is rare. I say this with confidence as I am Chinese; and as such, I have been brought up with the notion that unity within the group – family or professional is intensely important and when tightly forged, will often last a lifetime. As a result, confrontation, if it indeed occurs is so subtle, that it will not break the harmony of the group.

Throughout much of Asia, the word ‘no’ is considered unacceptably abrupt, harsh to some degrees and is not simply used. Even some Asian languages do not have a literal translation for ‘no’ – instead we compensate by indicating a neutral agreement such as “I will try/do my best”, or “I will let you know” and “I will get back to you” and if all fails… “I will need to discuss this with my superior”. We would inadvertently resort to polite refusals than to say the words out loud.

So….damned if you do, damned if you don’t? …Not exactly.

The next time you are faced with such a decision, consider what the greater penalty of wearing a bad result is – what’s the worst that can happen if you say ‘yes’? and if you say ‘no’?.

Ask yourself this:

  • Is saying ‘yes’ aligned to achieving the long-term goal?
  • By saying ‘yes’, does it align to your values?
  • Does the data/evidence support a ‘yes’?

In a business (Advertising) that puts a premium on ‘yes’, have the guts to speak your mind. Re-frame ‘no’ as a positive response that shows leadership and to assure the end goal, while still being respectful– the consequence of your next ‘yes’ could mean the difference between an intended productive outcome and digging yourself (and your team) into a hole.

Think about this, the next time you say ‘yes’.


Topic for this blog entry was inspired by a Workshop session of the same name “How to Prevent Death by Yes” which I had attended during Cannes Lions 2014 – featuring a practical team exercise which equipped the  participants, with the tools and insights required to re-frame conflict as a positive feature of the journey to the most creative solutions, and deliver strategies for effective dialogue when the pressure’s on to do the wrong thing. This Workshop was conducted by Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, both co-founders and partners of Swim. Swim is a creative leadership consultancy based out of Toronto, CAN. 

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