Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 12, Issue 38;   September 19, 2012: No Tangles

No Tangles

by

When we must say "no" to people who have superior organizational power, the message sometimes fails to get across. The trouble can be in the form of the message, the style of delivery, or elsewhere. How does this happen?
Mohandas Ghandi

"A 'No' uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a 'Yes' merely uttered to please , or what is worse , to avoid trouble." — Mohandas Ghandi.

Saying "no" to someone with superior organizational power can be trying indeed. The unwelcome news doesn't always land easily, and the consequences to a no-sayer's reputation and career can be severe. But we can deliver "no" more effectively, and more safely, if we understand three of the many obstacles to successful delivery of "no."

Accurate threat assessment
In unsafe environments, where superiors abuse their power by shaping their subordinates' expressed opinions, the threat to anyone who must deliver "no" is real. Subordinates who assess this threat accurately can experience a sense of intimidation, which can cause them to appear less than confident when delivering their "no."
Since these no-sayers appear to lack confidence, the recipients of their "n" messages tend to discount what they hear, which can lead some recipients to reject the no-sayer's "no." In this way, the no-sayer's accurate assessment of the threat to the no-sayer can lead to rejection of the "no," even when the no-sayer has mustered the courage to deliver "no."
Incompetent task difficulty assessment
Those who lack sufficient competence to recognize impossible task assignments represent another threat to those who would say "no." A typical threat that no-sayers experience, delivered by superiors intent on receiving "yes" instead of "no," is, "If you can't get the job done, I'll find someone who can."
Superiors who lack competence sufficient to recognize the impossibility of their demands tend also to lack competence sufficient to recognize the incompetence of the people to whom they turn for "yes" when a no-sayer says "no." These powerful people might truly believe that they've found someone who will get the job done, but all they have really found is someone who agrees to take on an impossible task, and who isn't competent to recognize the impossibility of that task.
Inaccurate message formation
Superiors who are intent on shaping the expressed opinions of subordinates are more likely than others to withhold from subordinates information about the task at hand and about the environment in which it's hosted. This withholding can result in no-sayers delivering specious arguments as justification for their nos.
When this happens, recipients A 'No' uttered from deepest conviction
is better and greater than a 'Yes'
merely uttered to please, or what is
worse, to avoid trouble.
—Mohandas Ghandi
feel justified in rejecting the no-sayer's position in its entirety, even if the no-sayer's conclusion is valid. Recipients who reason in this way are committing the formal fallacy — an error in logic — known as denying the antecedent. It follows the pattern: (a) If P, then Q; (b) Not P; (c) Therefore, not Q.

Although the recipient rejects the "no" for reasons that aren't logically correct, the recipient might actually recognize the error. Recipients who do so are acting unethically.

These three obstacles to delivering valid "no" messages are just samples. People intent on hearing "yes" when "no" is being delivered can be frustratingly inventive. Go to top Top  Next issue: Getting Into the Conversation  Next Issue

Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunLove the work but not the job? Bad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? This ebook looks at what we can do to get more out of life at work. It helps you get moving again! Read Go For It! Sometimes It's Easier If You Run, filled with tips and techniques for putting zing into your work life. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendgbneJjmgDoxbjmNner@ChacaAjtAagkVxMFnUrMoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Patterns of ConversationPatterns of Everyday Conversation
Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
A 1940s-era trap fishing boatNasty Questions: II
In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information. Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part two of a catalog of some favorite tactics.
Freeway damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta, California, EarthquakeManaging Pressure: The Unexpected
When projects falter, we expect demands for status and explanations. What's puzzling is how often this happens to projects that aren't in trouble. Here's Part II of a catalog of strategies for managing pressure.
Steve McInnis, the Building Commissioner of the City of North Chicago, IllinoisHow to Stop Being Overworked: II
Although many of us are overloaded as a result of our own choices, some are overloaded by abusive supervisors. If you find yourself in that situation, what can you do?
Malibu beach at sunsetFailure Foreordained
Performance Improvement Plans help supervisors guide their subordinates toward improved performance. But they can also be used to develop documentation to support termination. How can subordinates tell whether a PIP is a real opportunity to improve?

See also Workplace Politics and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceComing May 23: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX
An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
The end of the line for a railroad trackAnd on May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendYuPlQbuJIPpgBruner@ChacjpJPdXApIPcyIANHoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
Please donate!The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!

Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics!
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
My free weekly email newsletter gives concrete tips and suggestions for dealing with the challenging but everyday situations we all face.
A Tip A DayA Tip a Day arrives by email, or by RSS Feed, each business day. It's 20 to 30 words at most, and gives you a new perspective on the hassles and rewards of work life. Most tips also contain links to related articles. Free!
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.