The Great Lost Art of Saying “No”
In research administration, we are required to ensure that institution and agency policies are followed. The main purpose of our existence is for compliance and liability. We, therefore, must become comfortable with the skill of saying “no.” This essay details some strategies to mitigate the discomfort of saying "no."
The most difficult part of any professional position with authority is the great lost art of saying “no.” As humans, we want to generally be liked and appreciated. We do not wish to cause intentional harm. We, therefore, strive for success, which we associated with positive reinforcement. It is often easier to say “yes” and receive approval rather than say “no” and risk disapproval.
In research administration, we are often asked to be “the bad guys,” informing an investigator that, no, something is not possible. We have to become – to a certain extent – policy police. That is often not a natural position. However, the job requires we ensure that institution and agency policies are followed. The main purpose of our existence is for compliance and liability. We therefore must become comfortable with the skill of saying “no.”
Nevertheless, there is an art to saying “no.” I am known as “Mr. No” among my faculty. They understand that by the time they ask me, the answer is most likely going to be no. However, to their surprise, the answer is often not necessarily, “No,” but more likely offering an alternate recommendation (“No, but …”). Very often, faculty inquire about inappropriate avenues. Rather, it is often best to re-frame the question, identify the end result that needs to be obtained, and find an alternate route. This technique many times results in success (albeit often in a circuitous way).
Other techniques that can be attempted including the “better yes” method. The faculty may wish to attempt something which, nominally, would not be ideal. In lieu of saying “no,” an alternative could be offered that ends in the same result but in a more appropriate manner, i.e., a better alternative. Another technique is to alter the timing of a response. Perhaps the question would result in a no today but if some time passes, the answer could be a maybe or yes. This occurs when the situation changes or politically a delay may be beneficial to success. A third technique may be partnering to identify a solution. Understand that an agency or policy may not allow something, but perhaps together you and the faculty member can jointly identify a solution. This allows faculty buy-in an engagement with the solution. Fourth, taking “baby steps” is often a means to work your way toward a yes. The entire request may be a no, but perhaps several smaller steps could be attempted to get closer to the yes. Fifth, a simple firm “no” may suffice. You’d be surprised at how often the faculty will reply, “Didn’t hurt to ask.” This softens the no. And, lastly, though less-than-ideal, there is the deflection game: blame the policymakers for creating an unworkable problem. Sometimes, no is the only and best answer. Though difficult to admit, realistically, deflection is a tool in any arsenal.
Once you begin to become more comfortable saying “no,” the world will open to the possibilities of no. You will find that, though difficult and occasionally generating a negative response, an appreciation and level of respect will follow. Thus, learn the power of the great lost art of saying “no.”
Authored by Mark Lucas, Chief Administrative Officer
University of California, Los Angeles, Department of Neurobiology