No task is insurmountable, no problem impossible to resolve. Your can-do attitude has gotten you where you are today. But then you hit a brick wall. For whatever reason — morally, politically, for the sake of your own career advancement — you must say no to your boss.
William R. Daniels, co-owner of Mill Valley, California's American Consulting & Training, has had to say no to all kinds of clients under all kinds of circumstances. Daniels has learned that — inevitable as it is — saying no to your boss is precisely what you don't want to do.
"It presents a real career risk," he acknowledges, pointing out that there often are ways to convey the "no" word without actually having to say it. "But if you don't say no some of the time, in some way, you'll get a reputation for saying yes to things that you can't possibly accomplish."
Making No Sound Like Yes
The Dilemma: At a recent meeting with senior partners at his consulting firm, Daniels was asked to head up a new marketing effort. He was less than thrilled with the proposed assignment — his priority was to lead teams that generate immediate revenue for the company.
The Answer: "This sounds interesting and I'd like to get involved. But I have other commitments right now. Is there a way that you can help me get around them?"
What you're really saying: "I'd rather eat glass than take this project, so you'll go through hell providing me with the resources to take it on." You're setting up a roadblock that makes it difficult for your superiors to enforce what they're asking you to do.
Making No Sound Like Maybe
The Dilemma: Daniels ran an extremely successful training program for a client. It did so well, in fact, that the client wanted to double the number of such sessions in the coming year. But he feared that taking on a repeat project would stymie his professional growth.
The Answer: "If I'm going to get involved, I need to understand more about the project."
What you're really saying: "What's the upside?" Perhaps there are compelling reasons why this project will be good for your career. Then again, says Daniels, "Engineers are always being asked to take on risky projects that can take up three years, fail, and leave their careers in the toilet."
Making No Sound Like No
The Dilemma: Daniels took on a consulting job with a high-tech firm that was lying to a client about when it would deliver a vital piece of equipment. Even worse, the firm's executives refused to address the problem.
The Answer: "I won't be renewing my contract."
What you're really saying: "You guys are sleazebags who could sully my reputation."
"But if I came right out and told them they were doing something illegal, I'd be exposing them to more liability and opening myself up to be called as a witness," says Daniels. "I backed away from the subject and completed the job I was brought in for."
Coordinates: William R. Daniels, bd@actca noe.com .
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.