How Saying No Elevates Your Integrity

by Jennifer Miller on April 3, 2012

in Personal Effectiveness

yes or no with pencilWhen you are asked to do something, does your “yes” really, truly mean “yes”, no matter what? If it means anything other than “Yes!” then you’re not living in integrity. To author Chris McGoff, the definition of integrity is a simple one: “I say what I am going to do, and I do what I say . . . every time.”

McGoff, author of The PRIMES, says that whenever he leads a project, he asks people to live in integrity for the duration of the project. As you can imagine, this makes people nervous. In McGoff’s world, there is no “maybe” or “I’ll try”. Answers to “Did you complete the task?” are either “yes” or “no”.

How nervous would this make you?

Here are three skills that McGoff says all people need in order to live in integrity:

  1. Recognize when you have been requested to give your word.
  2. Say “yes” only when you mean it.
  3. Get very good at say “no” because that is going to be your most common response.

I’ve found that many people are really terrible at saying no. And, if the only two acceptable responses are “yes” or “no” then guess what the default is?

In my experience, here are three reasons people have a hard time saying “no”:

Reason #1- I’ll let somebody down if I say “no”. Yes, you just might do that. But, will you be letting them down any less three weeks from now when you deliver poor results—or even worse, don’t deliver at all?

Reason #2 – This is such a great opportunity, I just have to find a way to do it. “Great” opportunities come along all the time. If this really is a can’t-pass opportunity, you’ll need to evaluate what you’re not going to do so you can make time for this extra work. And, sometimes, other obligations take precedence and you’ll need to let it go. It’s a bummer, but that’s life. You can’t do everything and do it well.

Reason #3 – It’s not acceptable to say “no”. This is the reason I hear most often from my clients. There’s a culture of “both/and” (I hate that phrase) or “do more with less”. My advice: do your best to help the requester understand exactly what you can and can’t deliver and why. For example: “I can get you specifications by Tuesday, but they’ll only be in draft form. That’s the best I can do within this time frame. If I can have until Thursday, I can get you firm estimates.”

We all want to live in integrity—but we might be fooling ourselves about how others see us. Keep in mind that each time you say “yes”, you are making a commitment. And people are measuring your integrity level by whether or not you keep your word. Even though it’s counter-intuitive, the word “no”, when applied appropriately, can help you elevate your integrity.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Art Petty April 3, 2012 at 10:05 am

Jennifer, thought-provoking as always! “No” is a powerful and often difficult word/concept to master for so many managers. It goes for management teams as well , particularly when it comes to project or initiative selection from a set of strategic options. As some wise person once offered, strategy is much about what you are not going to do. Many of our organizations end up with a bad case of “too many initiatives chasing too few resources,” and the outcome is fairly predictable. Of course, if you don’t have a clear strategy, it’s hard to know what to say “No” to! That’s a topic for another day. Cheers, -Art

Jennifer Miller April 3, 2012 at 10:42 am


I agree with your wise friend. Contemplating what we “will” do can be overwhelming– the possibilities are endless. It definitely helps to start by stating what we won’t do.

Heather Stubbs April 3, 2012 at 11:00 am

Excellent insight, Jennifer. I’m glad to say I’m much better at saying “no” than I used to be, but it’s still hard sometimes. I like your Reason #1 about not wanting to let someone else down. For me, this relates to priorities. We’re SO trained to put others’ needs before our own! After all, we want other people to like us! It took me years to realize that letting MYSELF down by saying “yes” and overstretching myself is far worse than letting someone else down. Besides, as you imply, if I’m not caring for my own needs, I can’t appropriately fulfil someone else’s.

Jennifer Miller April 3, 2012 at 11:24 am


I do think that women are conditioned to be more “helpful” in our society and therefore run into the challenges you mention. It took me a long time to understand that under-delivering was more damaging to my credibility than disappointing someone early on by saying “no”.

PM Hut April 5, 2012 at 6:49 am

Hi Jennifer,

I agree with your post but the problem is that sometimes you just can’t say no.

In the project management world, sometimes decisions are forced upon you by the project sponsor or the stakeholders, decisions about unrealistic deadlines or making you commit to an unrealistic budget – and while you can complain, it’s impossible to say no (unless you want to jeopardize your whole career).

Here’s a related post by Abby Dryer:

Jennifer Miller April 5, 2012 at 9:47 am

In the scenario you paint, it isn’t possible to directly decline a request of a stakeholder. It *is* however, incumbent on the project manager to learn to speak “truth to power”. The suggestions that Abby gives are excellent ones– they help the stakeholder making the request understand the implications of saying “yes”.

I also am not in complete agreement that it’s “impossible” to say “no”. When you adopt this mindset, you set yourself up for frustration and projects doomed to fail. People who learn to work with their stakeholders to help them understand the ramifications of unrealistic expectations are those who will be seen as influential, and able to successfully shepard projects that arrive on time, within budget and with no “bodies in the ditches”.

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