The time I learned to say “No” at work


It was only my second job out of university, working as a software developer for a small consulting company in Copenhagen. I was 26 years old, dressed in a suit and tie that still felt like a halloween costume to me, having meetings with the customer’s VP of finance, trying to find out exactly what the IT system we were developing for their new factory should be capable of.

The customer was in France, and I regularly flew down there from Copenhagen for work and meetings, landing in Basel, an airport situated so you can exit into Germany, France or Switzerland, depending on which exit you choose. As one of my colleagues found out to his cost when he accidentally exited on the Swiss side rather than the French and ended up paying Swiss taxi rates for the trip to the customer’s factory rather than French.

Now here’s the problem: At every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it in this way, then in that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Of course I never show it, oh no, I play the consummate professional, capable of dealing with everything. And of course the customer is always right – right? So I coolly explain to them that “this is different than what you said at our last meeting and implementing the change will be costly”. They just say “sure, but that’s what we want”.

And then, finally, I lose it at a meeting. They introduce change number 2883 (by my loose reconing), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”. Then we take a break.

During the break I’m standing alone drinking a cup of coffee, thinking “well, that’s the end of this project for me”. I feel really embarassed for having lost my cool in that way.

So what happens next is totally unexpected for me: They start treating me much better. All the time I’d tried to play the cool professional – that didn’t really fly with them. But when I got mad, and showed it, I showed them some of the real me. I showed them that I was human, and that there were things I wouldn’t put up with.

From that point on, they respected me more and they trusted me completely. I became the guy they went to first and work on the system became much more smooth. Go figure!

I learned two things from this incident:
1: Don’t be afraid to say no to a customer – Customers trust you more if you say “no” when the answer is no. In the IT company I co-founded later, we once asked a customer what they liked about working with us. Their answer “That you say no! Our other suppliers say yes to every request we have, then don’t deliver because it’s too difficult. You guys say no if you can’t do it or if it’s a bad idea”.

2: Show emotions at work – Sometimes it’s a great idea to show what you’re really feeling. There’s this fiction in the workplace that we come to work as rational people and leave emotions at home. That just ain’t so – we get as happy, mad, sad, thrilled, disappointed and excited at work as we do outside of it. Never showing that isn’t good for you.

One of the keys to happiness at work is an ability to say “Yes!” as I wrote about in a previous post. When a new idea comes along, when somebody asks for your help or when a co-worker suggests a new approach, saying “Yes” is what moves things along. If all ideas and suggestions are met with a “No” (or a “Yes, but…”) change becomes very difficult.

But it’s just as important to say no when no is the answer. If you can’t say “No” at work, then your “Yes” is meaningless. If you work in a company where “Yes” has somehow become the only acceptable answer, meaning that compliance is forced on employees, then nobody is really saying yes. They’re not even given a choice. Demotivation, cynicism and covert sabotage are sure results of this.

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29 thoughts on “The time I learned to say “No” at work”

  1. I don’t know that getting mad is necessary. Learning to say no by saying “you said you wanted this last week, now you want that. I can’t give you something that does both in the time frame, so you need to decide which one you want.”

    Although, I’ve found that when they act like that, I just allow for the later enhancement in the code. After the first release, they usually like it so much that they have big ideas for enhancements no matter what you do.

  2. Alexander, you are right on the money! But this doesn’t just hold true for individuals, it’s true for companies as well.

    I won’t say much about who I work for (an engineering firm), but one of the reasons our clients like working for us is that we tell them “no” when they ask for something that can’t be done.

    It never does anyone any good to promise the moon if it can’t be delivered. The reputation hit can kill you!

  3. Jim: If you can do it wihout getting mad that may be better. In this specific situation we were able to move forward because I got mad. If I had calmly explained the same thing to them, nothing would’ve changed.

    Robert: Exactly!

    vs: And sometimes it’s a spectacularly bad idea and will get you fired. I agree. But most workplaces are currently geared against showing emotions and I believe people would be more effective if they were allowed to be themselves more. Would you agree?

  4. I think this is only interesting because of the cultures involved. Americans get angry at work all the time. Sometimes it’s a disaster – maybe someone gets shot – and sometimes it’s great because the angry person also happens to be right, and gets his/her way. But there is no guarantee.

    The real message here is that Scands need to show more emotion in all parts of their lives. It’s simply a matter of taking decisive action according to your true opinions. And certainly the French are some of the most emotional people in Western civilization, so of course they understood your outburst as a form of communication.

    Try that in the UK and see what happens…

  5. A friend of mine has a book about leadership in his bathroom; “Parkinsons secrets about leadership” or something like that. I read a few lines each time I visit him, and I have urgent business to take care of … If you know what I mean.

    I recently read something that made a big impression on me; the most difficult thing a leader has to do, is to say no.

    After reading that, I felt relieved. It is very true, and not only is it difficult, but it is important. Saying yes can have to disasterous consequences. Saying no too often can be bad as well, of course, but saying no is definetly the most difficult thing to do.

  6. That’s true, stressedmanager – saying no can be really difficult.

    It’s also true that sometimes it’s easier to say no. When new suggestions come along that seem risky, unclear or which might rock the boat it’s sometimes easier to say “no” instead of “that sounds interesting, please tell me more”.

  7. Not all emotions are good to show at work. Frustration is one that is always left underwraps while at work. Same goes for stuff like bitterness and seething anger and the like.

    But what you did was simply putting your foot down: this won’t ever be finished if they keep making changes.

    I work in IT. There are PLENTY of times I tell clients ‘no’. But in the end, if they want it this way or that way and they want to pay me for it, then that’s fine.

    ‘The client/customer is always right’ is too simplistic. ‘The customer gets what he/she requests so long as he/she pays’ is more apropos.

    Will they in the end blame you if the project never gets finished because of the changes they require? Sure, they might. But in the end, it isn’t YOUR project, it is THEIR project that you are working on. You don’t own it, they do.

  8. John: I agree that we often hide negative emotions like fear and frustration but I believe that’s a bad thing at work.

    Emotions don’t go away when you suppress them – they become stronger. The best way to reduce frustration is to get it out in the open and do something about it.

    As for doing it the customer’s way, I remember one story of an IT consultant who adviced his customer against a specific database solution. They went with that solution anyway, and lo and behold, it didn’t work – for the exact reasons he’d told them.

    They call him in to fix the problem and he shows up at the meeting wearing a T-shirt saying “I told you so!” on the back.

    Every time he turned to write on the whiteboard, he was not-so-subtly rubbing it in their faces.

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  10. Alexander:

    Your story reminds of another story: “Once there a hungry poor man, carelessly lying outside an abandon house. A mann passing through the avenue notices the poor man and thinks that he must be real hungry. So the man buys a sandwich from a store and gives it to the poor man. the poor man thanked him and that man walked away. The very next day the man notice’s the same poor old man lying helpless on the street, the man again gets a sandwich for him and walks away. This starts to happen everyday now. After ten days have passed, the man again passes from the same street, finds the old poor man lying, but this time he does’t have enough money in his pocket to get a sandwich for the poor man. Lowering his head the man trys to pass across the old poor man, as soonas he passes the old man, the old man shouts and says: Where is my sandwich? You were supposed to bring sandwich for me!”

    The story is same as yours, when you start accepting everything, the customer thinks that it is his right and customer’s expectations begin to rise, but the day you are not able to meet the customer’s expectations, the trouble starts!”

    So its better to say NO and avoid the build-up of false expectations.


  11. Hi,
    I really appreciate what you have written about work place and so on.

    I am in a very disappointing situation at work and i am dreaming of leaving this place. It is only six month since i joined this company but my life has become hell because of the boss. He is the kind of person who think he is great and start with some stupid meeting everyday about mentoring and impose on us some moral views to attack our personality. He openly told me that i had too much ego because i told him that i was not growing and that the job was not what i was expecting. Since then he always talk about the right attitude, things that everything start with ‘YOU’ etc. He openly criticized me on the fact that i started my chartership and believe that this was not the company goal and considered that i am concentrating on my personal goal too much. My co-workers are convinced that i do have too much of ego. please give me some tips to get out of that situation.

  12. No. The most powerful word in business. The most inflamatory word. The most clarifying word. It is a technicolor coat you wear when you decide to break out the No.

    I have always known that simply using the word can be mis-construed as an infantile attempt at stopping actions, treated as a tantrum of “No No No!!!!”. It is a word that relies on tact to be effective for most people. Lack of tact when using No will result in the exact opposite effect that you desire. Managers with malice will punish you by forcing the exact opposite on you in a counter-productive punititve method of “teaching you a lesson”. Most customers will label you as combative and non-responsive if you simply start by saying No, even if you back it up with experience/knowledge/whitepapers on prominent websites written by experts. These are just two cases where you cannot win by saying No. You must find another way.

    My approach has always been direct (sometimes, brutal) honesty. It’s not malicious or spiteful, just direct honesty. Regardless whether you don’t like that approach, you will always get a certain level of respect (and corresponding amounts of despise, usually) for calling out a bad idea, regardless of tact. Some even secretly admire that level of boldness for calling out bullcrap as needed because they are too milquetoast and secretly fantasize about acting out these scenarios but have indentured themselves to their paycheck.

    Warning: if you’re a ladder-climbing, boot-licking, customer-pandering Yes-Man, then don’t use No. It won’t help you either.

  13. I would say sometimes we need to say “no” to our customers yet it depends on situations and the way it is communicated to them.

    I would say ” we can alter using the word “yes” instead of “no” to show to our customers that we are willing to help in a different way.

  14. Thank you for your article. I enjoy reading it but I have to say that it cannot be applied to many areas. Believe me I wish there were times when I could put my foot down and say No to the customer. I work in hospitality industry and No doesn’t work in that environment. Doesn’t matter how difficult the customer is! You don’t say No, you find alternatives.
    I just started a blog on customer service at and saying No to a customer is a post I am working on now.

  15. In one of my previous jobs, a manager (above me but in a different department, not my direct supervisor) had a history of making less-than-reasonable requests of me, and in particular asking me to do projects for her that took MUCH more time than I’d been led to believe.

    It took several times saying no to these requests to get her to back off:

    For a data-entry project: “When I agreed to help you with Data Entry Project, I didn’t realize it would be an ongoing expectation. I was happy to help during the crunch time, but I can’t continue to do it on a regular basis. My boss has given me some major projects to do in my own department, so I need to make those my top priority. She has instructed me to refer any inquiries on Database to you or your staff.”

    For a translation project with a tight deadline: “If this were a smaller project

  16. It is not easy when you are a “by the books” kind of person. The consequences of not following certain procedures can be deadly for some, arrest, loss of job, etc. I really love my job and take it more seriously than most of my coworkers. It is not just a paycheck to me. Just so you know, if you meet an asshole like me some day, who makes you count things with me, to make sure we are in the same page, or whatever someone is making some big fuss over, realize…maybe every now and then we are doing it for reasons outside of pissing you off.

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