From the magazine: The art of saying ‘No’

With budgets being squeezed to breaking point, sadly, school business managers cannot say ‘Yes’ to every request they receive for a piece of the pie. So, how can you say ‘No’ to spend requests from staff members, without rocking the boat?

I recently delivered a workshop for 30 professionals in law and finance. I asked the question ‘Who finds it easy to say ‘No’ in life?’. Four people confidently put up their hands. Others looked at me, shaking their heads and wincing at the thought,” recalls Lindsay Maclean, communication expert and author of Speak Up & Be Heard. “This is a very common response – whether I’m delivering workshops for the financial industry or the education sector.”

Why is it that most of us feel uncomfortable saying ‘No’? “Many of us struggle to say ‘No’ – or, if we do say ‘No’, we can feel guilty and worry that we might offend others,” Lindsay explains. “We sometimes feel bad about saying ‘No’ because we aren’t convinced of our value/likability otherwise,” adds Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness.

When dealing with budget requests, school business managers will, inevitably, have to turn some down. So, how can you say ‘No’ without feeling guilty and without offending the person making the request? “Your best bet is to take the ‘firm and friendly’ approach,” Lindsay advises. “If you want to keep it positive – and maintain relationships – it’s important to remember we are all human beings…never underestimate the power of a friendly response!” She advises a three-step approach:

  1. Show empathy – acknowledge and make sure you have fully understood by repeating their request. When someone feels understood they can accept the word ‘No’ more easily.
  2. Be firm – say ‘No’ clearly and be transparent about your reasons.
  3. Keep positive and solution-focused – after you’ve said a definite ‘No’, end positively. For example, “We hope this is something we can look at doing in the future” or, “I think your ideas are great and perhaps there are other ways of meeting your objectives”.

Is it a reasonable request?
Reiterating the importance of a firm and friendly approach, Laura Williams, independent consultant at LJ Business Consultancy, says it’s important to differentiate between reasonable budget requests and those which will always be met with a ‘No’.

“When dealing with a budget request, first of all, ask yourself ‘Is this person asking for something reasonable?’ If they’re not – let’s say it’s class tickets to Wimbledon – then politely explain your reasons, of which, I’m sure, there will be many, and be firm.

“If the answer is ‘No’ – and will always be ‘No’ – it’s important that you respond immediately, politely and firmly. In these situations, also be sure that you have the autonomy to make the decision before you answer. If you don’t, let them know that you’ll note their request and get back to them when you’ve spoken with the head.”

Of course, it gets harder if you know that what they’re asking for is something that could really benefit the school, Laura acknowledges and, in a time where money wasn’t an issue, you wouldn’t think twice about saying ‘Yes’.

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“In these situations, examine the request more thoroughly and ask yourself, ‘Has anything they’ve said made me reconsider existing budget priorities? Is there anything that either they, or I, can do to enable me to say ‘Yes’?’ Maybe there is a cheaper way of doing something, or you could create additional resource by reducing expenditure in another area.”

Sometimes requests require some more thought and consideration. In these instances, Laura suggests saying, ‘I hear where you’re coming from; leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do.’ “When you’ve investigated, make sure that you go back to them with an answer and, if you have to say ‘No’, an explanation,” she explains. “If you can’t agree to their request, then at least the person will see that you recognise the importance of what they’ve asked for, you’ve tried, and that there are good reasons behind why it can’t be done.”

As for concerns about your value/likability in the wake of a ‘No’, Dr Tang has this advice. “You are making professional, not personal, decisions within this context and you have a procedure to follow which supports the overall organisational vision. This is success criterion enough to help satisfy – or substitute – that need, at least in this context.”

Five tips for a smooth transaction
Budget holders may feel pressure from colleagues all needing that little bit extra. Dr Audrey Tang, a chartered psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Mindfulness, provides some top tips to help with a smooth decision-making process.

  1. Transparency
    Use transparent strategies which demonstrate how decisions will be made, including timeframes. This may be how pitches and proposals are to be set out, and the criteria on which they will be judged.
  2. Signpost
    Be able to signpost staff to other possible areas of funding.
  3. Celebrate successes
    If staff are aware where the budget has been spent – especially in the form of celebrating the successful proposals – everyone gains an awareness of where the money goes.
  4. Know your organisational goal and convey it
    Be aware of the longer-term vision for your school and communicate that to the staff. This way staff can focus on steering their work in a way that will contribute directly to the growth strategy.
  5. Have pre-prepared phrases for ‘pushy people’
    Be able to say to pushier staff members, ‘We are meeting about this on Thursday’, or refer back to the transparent procedures you have set up. That way, everyone is treated fairly – and are seen to be as well!

This article featured in the May issue of Education Executive. Subscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.

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