Learning to Say ‘No’

When I began in IT, I knew shockingly little about computers. I talked my way into a position as a network administrator back in the mid 1990s when IT was more like the Wild West. At the time you didn’t need certifications. That came later.  You only needed enthusiasm to learn and a can-do spirit. With that came the willingness to say "yes" to any problem that came your way, big or small.

Learning to Say 'No'While I was trying to sort out my role in IT, and IT’s role in the company, my objective was to become known as the person who could solve any computer problem, even if it was that a user’s knee was bumping their tower. I saw this as being needed, and it was a huge leap from the copy room position I’d left behind. I also had this nagging thought that if I didn’t move the tower or missed any small detail related to PCs, I’d be seen as a slouch – and would lose my job to someone more eager. It was born of fear. So I kept it up, climbing under desks, diagnosing home PCs, evening visiting my firm’s partners’ homes to resolve their connections or other issues. 

Like they say, you get older and wiser. I’ve learned the need to say "no" because – as the cliché goes – by saying no to one thing, you are saying yes to something else. More importantly, by saying no to something you’re actually – saying no to something. You’re saying you have more important tasks. By saying no, you’re laying boundaries.

‘No’ gets more respect in the workplace than yes. Don’t get me wrong. We all should work hard. I’m not advocating coming to work to do nothing. As IT professionals, our responsibility is to serve the needs of those using our information systems to get their work done. But to be truly effective and noticed, we often need to say no.

Some of the best advice I ever got was from a CEO who worked outside of IT, but made many observations about her own IT people. She told me to swap my corduroys and pullover shirts for sports jackets, slacks and ties. The idea being that when I approached someone’s office to help, I’d slowly remove the jacket and place it on the back of a chair as we discussed their PC’s problem, especially if I had to get under their desk. This would convey that of course I will do this for you, but I’ve mostly outgrown it. This strategy stems from a philosophy of projecting an image of importance and calm, rather than of saying a frenetic yes to everything.

Some IT professionals do this naturally, yet others who are older and should know better continue to be slaves of user requests. I only need to look down the hall at a colleague in his mid-forties. He is a true worker bee, very diligent, saying yes to everyone, and his list grows longer with requests that weren’t assigned to him through normal channels. Most of these tasks are done without his boss’s knowledge, and the tasks his boss assigns are pushed further and further back.

What should he do?  Tell the user to call the help desk so the problem is properly documented, explain that his list is so long the issue will take a long time to get to. He could say, "Let me tell Angela about that. She’s knows that system better than I do." And this is the key. In these instances, he’s not iterally saying no. He’s offering alternative solutions.

Case in point: Recently, I sent an e-mail to my colleague’s supervisor asking how many scanners were deployed. He came back with, "I have no idea.Try David." This guy was promoted to supervisor above our worker-bee friend. Think about it: One works hard, the other refers, yet the hard worker was passed over. Both wanted the job, but management wanted someone who could prioritize and show responsible decision-making – and had the backbone to say no.

Again and again, I’ve watched people who say no move forward, while the yes men stay put.

Dino Londis

Comments

2 Responses to “Learning to Say ‘No’”

August 25, 2009 at 9:42 am, B Irwin said:

This sentiment also applies to saying no when the person is in a managerial position.

I had a boss that was “yes” man through and through. Instead of standing up and saying “we need to acquire this, this and this in order to function and stay afloat…” he went along with what the bosses suggested even though he knew it was wrong.

Yes, there is only so much one can do to affect decisions that are made above you. But if the worker-bee manager never speaks up and speaks his mind things won’t change. In this situation, things didn’t change and got worse.

Last I heard the company is no longer in business because the things that needed to be changed were done three years too late. They had lost too much business to stay afloat.

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August 26, 2009 at 5:20 am, Julia said:

Good advice, hard to follow!

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