Brad Keywell

Why You Must Prioritize a Quick No


That’s right, “no.” And quickly. Ok — I know I’m in Jeopardy format. So, the question is this: “What’s the next best thing to a quick yes?”

 A quick “no” is not easy, but it’s necessary. To be impactful and purposeful with collaborators, prioritizing a quick “no” is the next best thing to a quick “yes.”

Before I go further, a quick overview is in order. This Q&A thing can get a bit abstract until you realize that at times you are the questioner, and at times you are the responder, and at all times you are in a position to facilitate a resolution.

A quick “yes” provides a lot of intrinsic value to both the questioner and the responder. The questioner gets to feel validated. Their belief is confirmed by the “yes,” and they probably feel really smart that their idea is now an initiative. And the responder delivers another human being something they want, which makes us all feel good. Plus, when I agree to the questioner’s idea, we begin shaping a common perspective together that comes across as correct or better or innovative because it is shared. So, the best thing is a quick yes. Everyone wins. Or so we think.

A quick yes can be dangerous if it's rooted not in logic or rationality but instead the inclination to please or appease the questioner. The way to protect against a reflexive, emotionally-driven “yes” is to keep rationality as the guidepost to your answer. Rationality and logic, when aligned with objectives and values as their foundation, prompt us to check ourselves to make sure that the affirmation of a “yes” is purposeful. 

Where does a slow “yes” fit into this? It’s not the worst thing, but it’s only not-the-worst if the time spent waiting for the “yes” is productive and communicated openly to the questioner within a set timeframe.

So what if the answer is not “yes?” If not yes, the answer must surely be “no” — or so reason would dictate. Over the course of thirty years of building businesses, I’ve come to learn through painful experience and careful observation that human behavior tends to favor a slow “no” over a quick “no.”

A quick “no” requires courage, certainty on the part of the responder in their opinion and authority but also trust that the questioner understands the rejection as aimed at their idea, not their person. A quick “no” demands that the responder has the ability to revisit their objectives and values (of both themselves and their organization) to explain why the request doesn’t match up. This is not as easy as saying “maybe… let me get back to you” — it requires confronting the facts and the fear of rejecting/getting rejected (which is not as easy as preserving momentary cheer and pushing off disappointment that you will later deliver/receive).

Delaying the pain of giving a quick “no” creates decision backlogs, which creates slowness and uncertainty, which creates a lack of clarity, which creates confusion, which creates toxic bureaucracy of trying to figure who can give a firm and clear answer — I hope you get the point. A slow “no” wastes precious time, deprives others of the clarity they need, erodes confidence of others in your ability to be decisive, and introduces self-doubt for questioners (as they make up stories about why they haven’t received an answer).

What’s the protection against endemic “slow no” tie-ups? Easy — no, and quickly.

But if you aren’t sure of the answer, then an explicit acknowledgement of the question, of the reasons you are not sure, and a short deadline in which you commit to deliver an answer is the best course of action.

The benefits of a quick “no” are many and productive of healthy cultures:

  • Clarity: shows the gap between questioner’s idea and objectives

  • Curiosity: gives feedback on new ideas and inspires their continued generation

  • Industry: drives communication and action aligned with value

I emphasize the value of the quick “no” to put an exclamation point on the reality that leaders should encourage their teammates to ask any question. It’s also okay to hear or deliver a “no” — it’s okay to fail, as long as it happens in speedy pursuit of a rational goal, and as long as you quickly learn from failure and iterate to improve and try a better route.

It’s my hope that this idea empowers the potential deliverer or receiver of the “no,” that they might bring about a quicker resolution so as to build confidence, enhance communication, and help us all demonstrate our commitment to clarity, curiosity, and industry.

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© Brad Keywell 2021