Join Doug Rose for an in-depth discussion in this video Saying "no", part of Project Management Foundations: Communication.
I once worked on a project where the stakeholder insisted on a deadline that was unrealistic. The group was eager to draw new business, so there was a lot of pressure to just follow the stakeholder. The stakeholder threatened to pull the entire team but if we said yes, we'd be saddled to a doomed project. They would hold us to a deadline we couldn't meet. Saying no can be very difficult for a project manager. There's no mystery why. "No" isn't a word that's celebrated in organizations. Project managers are rewarded for their can-do spirit.
They wanna be seen as someone who can get things done. "No" is a downer. But sometimes "no" is the correct answer. So project managers are usually faced with 2 choices. You can say "no" even though that's not what everyone wants to hear, or you can say "yes" and own the outcome. You'll be responsible for the failed project if you say "yes" and the answer is "no." This is even more dangerous than being seen as a downer. It's also true that in some organizations, saying "no" is dangerous.
Some organizations will shop for new project managers until the find someone who says "yes." So every project manager should have some skill saying "no." It's important to say "no" correctly. The best way to say "no" at most organizations is to create a "no sandwich." This is a clear, decisive "no" that is sandwiched between good news and empathy. So let's start with the filling. How do you create a clearly worded "no?" Your "no" shouldn't leave any doubt that you are saying "no." Stick with negative words, like "can't" and "won't." Stay away from words like, "at this time" or "doesn't seem likely." Imagine you're a project manager and one of the business analysts need to move a milestone.
First you should clarify the request and send an email response. Your email response should say something like, "I'm sorry Sandy, I can't deliver "this milestone a month earlier." This is a clear, well worded "no" statement. What you should avoid is an email like, "Hi Sandy, I enjoyed our conversation. "It doesn't seem likely that I can "do what you ask at this time." This statement isn't clear, it's negative, but not final. "At this time" leaves the door open that she can contact you later.
"It doesn't seem likely" left open the possibility. Often, people will hear things differently if they're hoping for a positive outcome. So if Sandy really wants to have this milestone moved, she might read the sentence as a "maybe." "Doesn't seem likely," might look like a 49% chance. "At this time" might mean "not today" or "maybe in a week." So you could get a response a few days later asking if this is a better time. It might seem counter intuitive, but you're less likely to annoy Sandy if you say "no" clearly.
Sandy will think you're wasting your time if it takes several follow ups to finally hear a clear "no." So keep your messages short and clear, then you can sandwich the "no" between good news and empathy. So for Sandy, you might want to say "We are scheduled "to finish the project two weeks early. "I can't deliver the milestone a month earlier. "I hope this doesn't cause you too much trouble." Sandwiching the "no" between good news and empathy accomplishes two things. The first thing it does is put your "no" in context.
You wanna show the person that even though you're saying "no," the project's still looking great. The second thing the empathy and good news accomplishes is that it shows that you took their requests seriously. We've all been in a position where someone has told us "no." There's a "no" with empathy and a "no" without empathy. The "no" without empathy is more likely to leave bad feelings. I once worked for a project where I was trying to create a shared work space. I asked the program manager if we could remove the cubicles and work at a large table.
She sent me back a one-liner that said, "Sorry, not gonna happen." This "no" was very clear but it lacked good news and empathy. It didn't leave me feeling good about the organization. Imagine if she has said, "It looks like you're "approaching the project creatively. "Sorry I can't move the cubicles, "I hope you can work around it." In an organization, you never know if you're gonna need help from someone. So it's always best to treat everyone, above and below you, with empathy.
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- Using formal and informal means to communicate
- Prioritizing stakeholder needs
- Listening actively
- Planning project communication
- Understanding leadership language
- Writing clear and concise project reports
- Learning how and when to say "no"<br><br>
- The PMI Registered Education Provider logo is a registered mark of the Project Management Institute, Inc.