Leading With “No, But…”

Managers often encourage a certain mindset for their employees, especially salespeople: “Lead with yes.” The idea is that, when you’re asked to do something, you should do your best to agree and follow through. The reason this is seen as valuable for salespeople, of course, is that it keeps customers happy. The concept gets extended to employees of all specialties as a way of encouraging collaboration within a workforce.

The problem is, “yes” isn’t always the right answer.

Tech companies see the impact of this all the time. A client asks a salesperson, “Can your product do X?” The salesperson says “yes,” then goes back to the engineers and developers and says, “We need the product to do X,” which is a real problem if X isn’t a realistic thing for the product to be doing.

Nobody wants to tell customers “No” for the simple fact that they may go elsewhere. Similarly, your employees may not want to say “No” when they are asked to do something, because they are afraid of getting passed over for promotions, or for cool assignments, or for pay raises. That can lead them to agree to do things they aren’t able to do, or take on too much and end up performing poorly because they are overloaded.

The alternative, for salespeople and everyone else, is to say, “No, but…”

When a customer asks, “Can your product do X?,” the best answer might be “No, but it does do something else that gives you the same result,” or “No, but it still does get you 90% of the way to your solution,” or something along those lines. You don’t want to over-promise, especially because your client might have been asking out of curiosity; it may not even be a dealbreaker. Plus, they are more likely to appreciate your honesty than to appreciate you saying “Yes” and then failing to follow through.

Hopefully, you look at your employees the same way. You should want them to be honest with you, and take on tasks or agree to options that have a realistic chance of working. At the same time, you don’t just want then to say “No,” so encourage them to come up with an alternative. When you ask them if they can take on a new project without disrupting their work, well, maybe they can, or maybe they should say, “No, but if we can adjust this other deadline then I can do this,” or “No, but I know who can, and they happen to be looking for a chance to do something new.”

Replying “No, but…” offers a happy medium between “Yes” and “No.” It also encourages people to think more about problems and solutions than simply about taking action. It’s a great way to get people to think beyond what they have done before and be open to new ways of doing things. Don’t worry so much about leading with “Yes,” but instead help people feel comfortable with “No, but…”