As delivery managers, one of our priorities is managing client expectations. And so it’s imperative that we get comfortable with having difficult conversations, negotiation and inevitably sometimes saying no.
In this post, I’m going to share some of the reasons why learning how to say no is unequivocally a positive thing, as well as some useful ways to approach and think about it.
Why it fills people with dread
Why does saying no sometimes seem so hard? Often it’s born out of fear – the fear of what might happen if I say no. We worry what other people will think of us. What they might say to others. And whether there will be repercussions.
And speaking personally, I think it can also be a cultural thing. In the UK, and in the UK Civil Service by extension, there is often a culture of people-pleasing. On the whole, we’re a polite society, and we want to appear unflustered and accommodating at all times. We think before we speak and seek not to make the other person uncomfortable. So we’re apt to say yes more than we say no.
Why it’s an important skill
Sooner or later you’re going to have to say no at work – it’s unavoidable. As your career progresses, you might find yourself needing to say no more and more. So you need to develop your skills in having this type of conversation. Depending on how you handle things, the outcome can vary – a lot.
Sometimes these can feel like high-pressure, high-stakes conversations. Your ability to say no, and for it to be taken well, might be the difference between being able to focus on a high priority, while maintaining the buy-in you need from the very same people you need to say no to. It effectively becomes a negotiation, and this can feel quite loaded.
But actually, you can almost always trust people to want to help, and to want the best overall outcome for the team and the delivery. In my experience, you can gain a lot of respect from senior stakeholders by approaching these conversations with robust openness and honesty, and with good intent. At the end of the day, they rely on you and the team, as you’re the ones at the coalface, and in the best position to advise and see the full picture.
As a Delivery Manager, our main directive is to advocate for the team and for the success of the delivery. This means tackling situations that could undermine this.
Getting comfortable with conflict
Inevitably, this kind of conversation will be difficult at first. But the more you practise having these conversations, the more straightforward they’ll become. The more you normalise this direct approach, the more trust will develop between you and your client.
5 tips to help
1. Be transparent and authentic
Work to build a relationship with your coworkers and clients so they know they can trust you to always produce the best quality work. With this mindset, they’re more likely to respect your position when saying no is ultimately the best option for the delivery at large. This will make your life easier when it comes to setting boundaries and expectations, too.
Giving wishy-washy answers won’t help you come across as genuine or persuasive. It can also cause frustration. Make sure they understand why you’re saying no, along with your reasons. Speaking candidly can help. If you are challenged, remain steady and clear on your message.
2. Assess through active listening
Before jumping to any conclusion or premature assessment, make sure you fully understand the request and the value it could deliver. Asking for more information can never be a bad thing, and will demonstrate to your client that you’re keen to help rather than being dismissive off the bat.
Say things like “help me to understand” or “please walk me through this”. Make sure you understand the problem the request could solve, as well as how it could impact the delivery. Repeat back your understanding of the request by paraphrasing to, to make sure you and the stakeholder are aligned and confident that you understand.
Explain the cost or impact of the request. Often, the contributor may not have full sight of the implications, and it’s important they not only hear you say no, but also understand why not.
You can make the most of your position on the ground in this scenario. Ultimately this is a negotiation and a trade-off. Keep the interests of the delivery at the heart of your argument and that should help you with your communication.
4. But avoid the concessions trap
I still have to work hard not to fall into this trap now – making sure you don’t kick the can down the road only to find that you trip over it later on. As an example, you might be challenged to develop a particular feature and as a compromise for now the team agrees to add it to the backlog. In other words, you’re not saying no, but you’re parking it for now.
Often, stakeholders will simply remember that this was parked and ask when they can have the feature regardless. Instead, it might well have been better to tackle the conversation about the feature up front rather than making the concession that felt easier at the time.
This is ultimately just a deferral. You’re postponing the negotiation for another time rather than resolving it.
Related: see this great post on the Public Digital blog about why your roadmap should have a not doing section.
5. Be empathetic
If you follow these tips you’ll be laying the groundwork to make saying no a lot easier. And, with practice, you might find it gets easier as people learn that, when you say no to things, there’s almost always a good reason. But whether you’re new to saying no, or well-practised, it’s always a good idea to show empathy in saying no.
One way to do this is to always share any alternative ways forwards, like possible workarounds in the product or service you’re building, if any have presented themselves. Even if the ask was an obvious no from the outset, bring it up at a meeting with a team to see if any workarounds suggest themselves.
It’s also important to avoid saying “I” when you say no. It can imply that the decision is based on your own opinion, or your own needs or priorities rather than those of the team, the delivery and the client. And that could undermine all of the great work you’ve done to get to this stage.
But remember: it’s OK to say no to unrealistic requests, or requests that don’t align with the ultimate aims of your delivery.
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