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The Time I Learned To Say “No” At Work


It was only my second job out of university, working as a software developer for a small consulting company in Copenhagen. I was 26 years old, dressed in a suit and tie that still felt like a halloween costume to me, having meetings with the customer’s VP of finance, trying to find out exactly what the IT system we were developing for their new factory should be capable of.

The customer was in France, and I regularly flew down there from Copenhagen for work and meetings, landing in Basel, an airport situated so you can exit into Germany, France or Switzerland, depending on which exit you choose. As one of my colleagues found out to his cost when he accidentally exited on the Swiss side rather than the French and ended up paying Swiss taxi rates for the trip to the customer’s factory rather than French.

Now here’s the problem: At every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it in this way, then in that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Of course I never show it, oh no, I play the consummate professional, capable of dealing with everything. And of course the customer is always right – right? So I coolly explain to them that “this is different than what you said at our last meeting and implementing the change will be costly”. They just say “sure, but that’s what we want”.

And then, finally, I lose it at a meeting. They introduce change number 2883 (by my loose reconing), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”. Then we take a break.

During the break I’m standing alone drinking a cup of coffee, thinking “well, that’s the end of this project for me”. I feel really embarassed for having lost my cool in that way.

So what happens next is totally unexpected for me: They start treating me much better. All the time I’d tried to play the cool professional – that didn’t really fly with them. But when I got mad, and showed it, I showed them some of the real me. I showed them that I was human, and that there were things I wouldn’t put up with.

From that point on, they respected me more and they trusted me completely. I became the guy they went to first and work on the system became much more smooth. Go figure!

I learned two things from this incident:
1: Don’t be afraid to say no to a customer – Customers trust you more if you say “no” when the answer is no. In the IT company I co-founded later, we once asked a customer what they liked about working with us. Their answer “That you say no! Our other suppliers say yes to every request we have, then don’t deliver because it’s too difficult. You guys say no if you can’t do it or if it’s a bad idea”.

2: Show emotions at work – Sometimes it’s a great idea to show what you’re really feeling. There’s this fiction in the workplace that we come to work as rational people and leave emotions at home. That just ain’t so – we get as happy, mad, sad, thrilled, disappointed and excited at work as we do outside of it. Never showing that isn’t good for you.

One of the keys to happiness at work is an ability to say “Yes!” as I wrote about in a previous post. When a new idea comes along, when somebody asks for your help or when a co-worker suggests a new approach, saying “Yes” is what moves things along. If all ideas and suggestions are met with a “No” (or a “Yes, but…”) change becomes very difficult.

But it’s just as important to say no when no is the answer. If you can’t say “No” at work, then your “Yes” is meaningless. If you work in a company where “Yes” has somehow become the only acceptable answer, meaning that compliance is forced on employees, then nobody is really saying yes. They’re not even given a choice. Demotivation, cynicism and covert sabotage are sure results of this.

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