The Fallacy of No

by Mike Myatt

The Fallacy of NoThere seems to be a popular movement afoot that believes the word “no” is the super antidote to the far inferior word “yes.” There are many well known axioms espousing the benefits of learning to use the word no with greater frequency. In fact, there are some very bright people who believe you cannot become a good leader without developing a mastery for using the word no as evidenced by the following quote from Tony Blair: “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes.” I couldn’t disagree more…In today’s post I’ll share my thoughts on what I refer to as the fallacy of no.

While inherently obvious, it should not go unnoticed that the use of the word no is 100% negative. The word no ends discussions, stifles creativity, kills innovation, impedes learning, and gates initiative. Put simply, the word no advances nothing, grows nothing, builds nothing and incentivizes nothing. No is not all it’s cracked-up to be…Still don’t believe me? Let me ask you a few simple questions: How do you feel when you’re told no? Does it leave you feeling better or worse? Does it make you feel like your contributions and opinions are valued?

Unless accompanied by a tremendous amount of reasoned dialog, the use of “no” is rarely informative much less instructive. Most leaders simply don’t take the time to have the needed conversation surrounding a no. Moreover, when those conversations do occur they tend to be focused on admonishment rather than teachable moments. Teaching someone how to get to a yes is one of the most valuable things a leader can do.

Let me put it to you another way…If as a leader you find yourself always saying no, what does that tell you about your leadership ability? It means your vision is not understood, your team is not aligned and your talent is not performing up to par. It means you’re not teaching, mentoring, communicating, or leading. The perception that strong leaders say no and weak leaders say yes is simply flawed thinking. A constant stream of “no’s” is not a positive sign, it’s a warning sign that needs to be heeded.

I have found that the most common reasons people tend to cite in support of using no are as follows:

  • It helps to keep them from wasting time
  • It somehow manages risk
  • It builds character, and
  • It helps them focus by not biting off more than they can chew

While saying no might be more convenient, the aforementioned agendas are better accomplished with clear communication, effective collaboration, and prudent resourcing – not by saying no. Great leaders help people get to a yes – in other words, they teach them how not to receive a no. Rather than just kill something with a quick no, a good leader uses every adverse scenario as a development opportunity to help people advance their critical thinking and decisioning skills.

While I understand that there are times when using no may be your only option, those times should be the exception and not the rule. It’s also important to note that the use of “yes” and “no” are neither universally right or wrong, but there is much greater upside to enabling a yes. Bottom line…Yes is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of intelligent leadership. Next time you’re tempted to say no, do yourself a big favor and find a way to work around the obstacle and toward a yes.

What say you?

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Mike MyattMike Myatt, is a Top CEO Coach, author of “Leadership Matters…The CEO Survival Manual“, and Managing Director of N2Growth.

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  1. I learned this lesson early on as a supervisor and it was not a topic that was discussed in any leadership development training I received. The lesson came to me through my education in psychology and doing volunteer work for groups outside of work. In group work, there were techniques utilized to engage individuals and get them to share and continue to share in the group. I learned that applying some of these techniques with individuals under my supervision that it had the advantages that the author discussed in this post (e.g. continues the conversation and increases likelihood of shared ideas). As a leader, I began to understand that no immediately shuts off any creativity or ideals. Instead, asking questions about pro’s and con’s and allowing the individual to expand their thoughts on something helps grow their expertise. When possible, the coaching and mentoring of individuals must also be considered.



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