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How to Say No When It Really Counts

Practical strategies for pushing back in difficult situations.

In response to last month’s post, “Five Moments When Saying No Is Your Best Strategy,” many readers asked for more detail on how to say no, especially in high-stakes situations. What do you do when a client demands services that are not in the contract? How do you respond when your boss orders you to do something questionable? What are your options when a public official offers to “move things along” if you help him or her out?

To learn more about effective strategies, I reached out to three colleagues who specialize in situations like these: Mariano Mosquera, director of the “Transparency Observatory” at Catholic University of Córdoba, Argentina, who teaches classes for business professionals trying to resist corruption; Joshua Weiss, senior fellow at the Harvard Negotiation Project; and Richard Bistrong, chief executive officer at Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC and a former FBI cooperator who served 14 and a half months in federal prison for violating foreign bribery laws.

All three warned against making hasty assumptions when strategizing. Although saying no can bring significant risks — to your relationships, your career, and sometimes even your safety — saying yes in fraught situations can be just as risky. “Reputational risks are growing so fast,” Mosquera says, describing how the prospect of being identified in social media can damage individuals and companies. “The legal risk is no longer the most important risk.” Even accommodating a client can backfire. “If things crash and burn,” Weiss says, “the client can end up costing you more than you earn — and your reputation will be damaged.” And, as a junior employee in the LIBOR scandal just learned, going along with your boss’s directions is no protection against going to jail. Still have doubts? Read Richard Bistrong’s post, “I'm sentenced to prison. Now what?

To avoid these damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenarios, the key is strengthen your hand before you get into the situation. Here are six strategies these experts recommend:

• Anticipate the pressure. “The most important thing is to anticipate the corrupt situation,” Mosquera says. Countries, companies, and clients vary. Learn the integrity practices of your setting. Then, use standardized methods — such as having transactions reviewed by others or never going to a meeting alone — to discourage inappropriate offers and requests. Even as a small company or an individual, you can develop a policy that explains your position on transparency, ethics, or values. Ask yourself: Why do I want to say no? Then, incorporate that into how you frame key conversations. For example, in meetings in which clients might ask about confidential sources, one consultant I know opens by saying, “This report reflects very candid input, which we were able to obtain due to our commitment to confidentiality.”

• Strengthen your hand. “People tend to pressure those who seem to be weaker, who can’t do anything about it,” Weiss says. Increase your leverage by actively cultivating options — what negotiators call your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. What other deals are in your pipeline? Who else needs the value you have to offer? What other clients might be more profitable? Stopping to do a strategic analysis takes discipline, but it gives you confidence and staying power. Weiss notes that one executive, when faced with pressure from a government official, responded, “We may have to take the slower route on this project.”

Increase your leverage by actively cultivating options — what negotiators call your best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

• Redirect the conversation. Saying no can easily come across as an attack, a challenge, or an insult. Instead, approach it more like the Japanese self-defense practice of aikido: Simply decline with courtesy and respect, then refocus the conversation on ways to move forward. For example, one vendor I know said to a client, “I’m not sure that strategy will get you to your goals. What if we tried xyz instead?” If the situation feels unsafe, Bistrong suggests a diplomatic, noncommittal response. Mosquera’s students even advise spilling your drink to get out of a dangerous situation.

• Maintain your exits. “The closer you get to a finish line, the easier it is to get hooked into ‘escalating commitment’ and compromise,” Bistrong says. “You may tell yourself, ‘It’s the end of the quarter, I’ve turned in my forecast — how can I let things fall apart now?’” But this is precisely the time that it is most important to take a step back and think about your options. “If you are struggling, call home. Listen to the voices of your loved ones,” he says. “If you make the wrong decision, those are the voices you could lose.”

• Call for reinforcements. Ask for help. Call your boss, call compliance, call a friend. Weiss suggests enrolling someone who is highly respected to help you deliver a difficult message. Bistrong recommends a candid sit-down with your leader about what is likely to happen and how you should deal with it. He also says that mid-level leaders need to be crystal-clear about where they stand. “Tell your direct reports, ‘Even if it is the day before the end of quarter, it doesn’t matter. You need to speak up, get the problem off your shoulders, and get it to the people on your team.’” Companies that aren’t so clear are likely to get into trouble.

• Underscore your no. Finally, expect and prepare for some pushback. “The person hearing your no will likely react in predictable stages, what we call the ‘curve of acceptance,’” Weiss says. Don’t react to his or her reactions. Instead, maintain your no with respect. Avoid any sign of antagonism or judgment, and leave the door open for a return when everyone is ready to solve the problem.

Regardless of the strategy you pursue, there will be some costs to saying no. But forewarned is forearmed. With practice, you can minimize the backlash and keep the things that are truly important. A financial analyst I interviewed once had a boss who routinely pressured him to work weekends. “Don’t you have a wife and kids?” the analyst asked. “Wouldn’t you rather we got our work done by Friday, so both of us could have the weekend?” The two of them worked out a plan. If done with respect, your no may actually bring out the other person’s best.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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