Does your organizational culture allow for “No”?

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One of the major characteristics of a high potential employee is to have courage. Courage to take a risk, the courage to step out of their comfort zone and courage to go against the grain of an organizational request.

In short, I am talking about the ability to say “no”. I am not referring to statements such as “no, I can’t”, “no, I don’t agree” or “no, that is not possible”. Shutting the door to ideas is not what a high potential would do. However, there is another type of “no”. There is “no, not yet”, “no, there is a consequence”, “no, I have an alternative”. All of these are followed by a rational counter position to an idea or objective. A true sign you have someone on the team thinking beyond the task.

The issue is if the organization has no tolerance for “no” in any form. What happens to the morale of an organization if they see the smartest of the team getting shut down without an opportunity to explain? What happens to the lost opportunity that listening would provide?

The context of the request is often not fully communicated. The experience of upper management may have reasons for pursuing the request when it is not obvious to those responsible for implementation. I am not saying that an alternative idea is always the best course of action. I am saying that having a culture that allows your team to speak up, even if it is counter to the request, benefits everyone.

Also, to be clear, it is important that the person, who is in essence, saying no to a request, do so with a reasoned counter-argument. It is not easy to say no to management in any case. Don’t let your emotions get the best of you and blurt out “NO”. Spend the necessary time to discuss with other stakeholders, get all the information that is available and respectfully say “no” with an explanation of why.

A personal example is my last assignment in a corporate position, where the culture didn’t allow for “no”. As stated in previous blogs, I have been a high performer my entire career. I focus on excellence and am very data driven. Yet when I was assigned the task of researching the customer viability of an idea, the data didn’t matter to my management. In fact, I was accused of not doing the work to prove the viability of an idea. The only acceptable option was for me to find a way to make the data support the idea. There was zero tolerance for the idea not being what the customer wanted.

As I investigated I repeatedly heard the idea wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t important enough for anyone to spend time or money to solve. When I tried to convey this, I was publically shut down. In fact, I was put on a performance review. OK, I am not trying to say I am perfect, however 6 months earlier in the same company I was brought up on stage to be awarded for being a top performer. It is easy to figure out what happened next, I left the company. It was not the right culture for me and I learned true success for me had to be aligned with my integrity.

Now, think about your own organization. Are you losing your talent because the idea of hearing a counter-argument is not tolerated? In my case, I was not the only person that left. Within a span of a month more than 50% of the people involved in the project had left the company.

The company is still in business today and hopefully, this was a rare situation. Your business may not suffer immediately for having a culture that shuts out counter arguments. However, you may be losing the next executives of your company. If you don’t have people within your organization, you have to hire from the outside. That can cost you 40% to 50% of that positions annual salary. And the person has to; build their knowledge of your business, build allies, learn your market and your customer, build a congruent team, etc. How much is this all costing your organization? How long does it take for a new executive to be set-up for success?

Isn’t it worth holding on to the top talent by simply allowing for more open dialogue? An alternative idea may even be better for your customer and your business. The side effect is the impact it will have on your culture. Open dialogue means more ideas will flow from the talent within the organization. What an easy way to foster sustainable excellence and employee engagement.