How do you say: “No!”

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Miguel Barbosa conducted an interview with Dan Ariely about his new book and posted it to his blog. Ariely gave a small excerpt out of that interview on his blog where he posted as an answer to one of the questions. This answer gives an example of dealing with the issue of internal motivation (or meaning) at work. Here is the example:

Three weeks ago I was in Seattle where an ex-student of mine who works for a big software company. She contacted me six weeks prior and I agreed to meet with her team. Something happened at that company in the weeks before I gave the talk.  The background being that my student and a small team of people had discovered an idea which they thought was the best innovation in the “computer world.” They worked very hard on this idea for two years and the CEO of the company looked at it and said I’m canceling the project.

Ariely then goes on to describe how that affected the team:

So here I was sitting with a group of highly creative people, who were completely deflated- In my life I’ve never seen anyone (in the high-tech industry) with a lower level of motivation. So I asked them, “How many of you show up to work on time since the project has been shut down?” Nobody raised their hand. I asked them, “How many of you go home early?” Everyone raised their hand. Lastly, I asked them, “How many of you feel that you should have taken the opportunity to fudge on your expense reports?” In this case, no one answered the question — rather everyone sat laughing to themselves—in a way that makes me think that they would have fudged their expense reports. So here you have a case of people who worked incredibly hard on a project and basically got rejected. Which leads me to ask how could the CEO have behaved differently if he was also trying to create a more positive feelings for the team members.

While I agree with Ariley’s suggestions on how the CEO could have behaved differently (read the rest of the post and the entire interview) I am interested in a different question. From the way the situation is presented, the CEO has no idea of the effects his decision had on his employees. Just read what the people describe as their feelings. It is freighting to think about the CEO’s ignorance! (also see – Toxic Tandem).

Now, beside Ariely’s ideas that are all, in one way or another, ways not to actually say “no” to the team, I am thinking about how the CEO could reach the same result, without taking the wind out the team’s sails and without creating all of these negative feelings in the team.

To be honest, I am not sure, I don’t know enough about the situation. I am, however, sure about one thing. A lot of it is found in the way the decision was communicated. Most people understand “no”. But they want to hear the “no” in an emphatic way and feel like they were listened to and that the process of reaching the no was fair. Thus, how the message is communicated matters. It is clear, from the way the team reacted and the solutions they offered (later in Ariely’s example) that what really mattered to them is not that they have been denied, but the way they have been denied. This might seem like semantics, but when dealing with internal communication between people, semantics matter (see my E-book for more examples)!

I think that if you ask each and every one of those employees whether it occurred to him that their project could be shut down, they would probably say – yes. And if you would have asked them, should, some projects be shut down while other should get the green light – they would have said yes. They don’t have a problem with the decision itself, although the justifications for it could be debated. It is, from what we can understand, a reasonable decision that CEO’s make. It is how the decision was communicated to them.

It is an important lesson. It is not enough to say “no”. Managers and leaders should be aware of the consequences of their “no” and communicate it clearly. Yes, it will require some more of the CEO’s time. Yes, it will mean that the decision will not be as fast. But it will ensure that the team will continue to the next project, pumped with energy and ready to risk themselves again.




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