The Best Advisors Say No
We’ve all been in that meeting. The meeting where someone, usually in a leadership role, suggests a terrible idea. An idea that’s either counterproductive to the mission of the organization, outside of the scope or abilities of the people within that organization, or just plain wrongheaded. The trajectory of that idea depends on the rest of us – the ones sitting in that room. Some ideas are nodded on through – no one is willing to speak up, question the thinking, challenge the person in charge to try and consider an alternative perspective. The Nationwide Superbowl commercial about dead children comes to mind. Someone had to come up with that idea and then a bunch of people OK’d it, over and over again, until it became a living, breathing thing.
I’ve spent about half of my career in advisory roles – as a consultant in both the political and private sectors – and learned that the hardest word to say is no. The job of a consultant is to deliver results, to show your value and contribution and to consistently please. There is nowhere this is more apparent than in PR; our work of showing our value is never-ending and is often difficult to quantitively measure. In order to deliver again and again, account teams can get into the habit of always saying yes. Saying yes to ideas, realistic or not, in order to keep the appearance of a machine ready to serve at any turn.
Saying yes, as though yes is the only good advice, the only possible way to be effective.
But it’s not – not even close. Working up the courage to say no – to challenge an idea or a project, to offer alternatives or a realistic view of what moving forward would actually mean and how it would be received, is a big task. It’s a skill I didn’t realize I lacked, until I began consulting on my own.
I worked as a political advisor for a local campaign and the candidate, an ambitious and big-hearted woman who was always juggling a million things in her personal and professional life and had grandiose ideas. Some of them were doable, some of them were not, and some of them weren’t going to further the mission of the campaign, which was of course to get re-elected. But she was a hard person to say no to, because her enthusiasm and attitude were inspiring and because she wasn’t the kind of person you wanted to disappoint. It was her personal assistant, an equally ambitious woman who was always willing to go to bat for her boss, who taught me the value of no. She knew how, and when, to push back and reign in her boss’ ambition – and she knew it was part of her value. Knowing when to say no is almost as important as actually saying it.
It takes time and trust to build up the courage and fortitude to say no. Certainly the assistant that I worked with trusted her boss and knew her opinion was respected. But she also trusted herself – she knew that respect was born from honesty and her loyalty, something her boss obviously valued. And you can’t be loyal and you certainly can’t be honest if you’re always saying yes, ignoring your instincts and your training.
Is it easier to say yes? In the moment, maybe. It might win hearts and minds in that moment. But in the long run, failing to speak up when a bad idea seems to have some legs behind it, will only hurt you, your reputation and your value. Recognize the right time to speak up, and state your case. Remind your client or boss that you’re pushing back not because it’s hard and you’re afraid of hard and not because it’s risk because you’re not brave enough. Remind them that you’re pushing back because you’re good at you’re job – that you’re protecting them, the organization and your colleagues. In the long run, your opinion will be way more valuable and trusted. Who wants advice or consultation from someone who never speaks the truth?