Can you say “no” and feel ok about it?

C.B. Fry was a remarkable man. Well into his seventies he performed his trademark party trick of a backward standing jump onto a mantelpiece; but this was just one of his talents. He played football in an FA Cup Final for Southampton, captained Sussex and England at cricket, played rugby for the Barbarians and held the world long jump record. In 1920 he was reputedly offered, and chose to turn down, the throne of Albania. As a man with an ambition for politics as well as sport, who had been frustrated three times in his efforts to become an MP in his own country, the offer to become the head of state of a nation must have been tempting. No details are recorded of the exchange, other than the fact that he was approached, and his reasons for declining are unknown. However, I imagine that most people (regardless of their ideas about Albania or the concept of monarchy) would experience at least some difficulty in passing up the opportunity to become royalty.

Sometimes you have to have the courage to say no to a business opportunity. It took me considerable time to learn to decline business opportunities and feel ok about it. I have four criteria which I apply and, if I were even to think about taking on a new piece of business without all four criteria being satisfied, I would need to have a serious talk with myself. History has shown that if I forget this discipline it tends to come back and haunt me. My four criteria are:

  • I only want to work with and for people I like
  • I only want to do interesting work
  • I want to make money but not be greedy
  • I want to have fun

During difficult economic times such as these, we are inclined to take on everyone who comes through the door. However, undertaking the wrong project can be just as damaging as turning down a golden opportunity, with potentially longer lasting damage. My criteria are, admittedly, personal ones for me and do not form a model for anyone to adopt but there are more universal, practical reasons for declining work.

Confidence in one’s own ability is commendable, but committing yourself to a project for which you have inadequate skills is a bad idea. We all like to be challenged and work that pushes you beyond your niche area of expertise can play a part in keeping things interesting, but if the Venn diagram of the required skills and your own skills does not overlap sufficiently you can be setting yourself up for trouble. If all you are bringing to the table is the fact that you are a quick learner then you could be embarking on a very unpleasant journey that could leave a permanent stain on your credentials and reputation.

It is important to be realistic about your resources. Time is finite – you can use time more efficiently, but you can’t add extra hours into the day. If presented with a new opportunity you have to be honest about whether you can devote the time that the project deserves, or that you can undertake this task without neglecting your existing clients. ‘Scope creep’ is a frequent concern – does this work involve exactly what it says on the tin, is it likely to snowball into something larger, what is the true size of this undertaking and does my pricing cover any expansion? The ‘creep’ in ‘scope creep’ implies that this is a gradual process, which is true, but it pays to keep alert for early warning signs. An expanding project may not just grow to demand time you do not have, but may start to require skills outside of your area of expertise, leading to the same problems mentioned above. If this situation is considered beforehand and planned for then all should be well, but if the signs are missed you can end up out of your depth, struggling for time and not able to put in the kind of performance you would be proud of.

Being proud of what you do leads to thinking about ethics. Most people don’t want to end up working for or promoting something they don’t believe in. Yes, where you set your own standard with regard to ethics is entirely up to you but you need to be consistent. Some people can work in the arms industry quite contentedly as they have never themselves pulled a trigger, whilst others have resigned from payday loan companies which, despite the legality of their service, troubled those individuals on ethical and moral grounds. You might find it easy to turn down work for an international drug smuggling ring but be unsure about whether or not to provide consultancy to a company that delivers financial services to a major overseas client known to use underage labour in their factories. Where you plant your flag on a moral map is up to you, but it’s worth thinking about where that might be and important to consistently stand by your ethical code.

The business world is becoming increasingly transparent – a change exacerbated by social media. If you enter into a project with the wrong skill set, insufficient resources or if that endeavour ties you to a particular ethical standpoint, it will become public knowledge. This is why it is worth giving these matters thought beforehand. It is not unprofessional to turn down work. However, if you feel you must decline work, it must be done with grace. Through word-of-mouth communication, social media and traditional networking, your decision to say no will likely become known. Your communication strategies must be positive and forward looking, even when delivering a negative response. How you deliver the bad news requires care, integrity, careful deliberation and should not make you look like an amateur. Respect and honesty are the order of the day.

I was honest with myself when I came up with my four personal criteria. Time and skills factors aside, these are things that I want from my work. I have tried to keep things positive. Instead of a ‘blacklist’ of work I would not contemplate they are a checklist of things I look for in prospective work.

Turning down work may seem mad, bad or dangerous to do, but some decision making goes beyond looking at the potential dollar signs, and taking on the wrong project can seriously dent you professionally and leave you very unhappy personally. It’s important to do what’s right for you. Not everyone wants to be a monarch. There are opportunities for work out there that you can do well, earn money from, take pride in and enjoy without sitting on the throne of Albania.

Posted in: Life Skills

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