What’s the most difficult word to say in the English language? Is it supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (a fake word, by the way)? Or is it pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis (a real word, by the way)?

If you guessed either of those—or pretty much any other word—you’d be wrong. That’s because the most difficult word to say in the English language is “No.”

As leaders and managers, we are faced with myriads of yes-or-no questions almost on a daily basis. But how we answer those questions—whether we say “Yes” or “No”—can drastically affect our work, our future, and our very life.

24 hours a day, 365 days a year

Think about this for a moment: Each of us only has 24 hours in our day. And each of us only has 365 days in our year. There’s no escaping those facts. But the point is not to think about time itself. The point is to think carefully about what we are filling that time with.

Every decision that comes along can be a “Yes” or a “No.” But as black and white as that may seem, the reality of it is decidedly greyer. That’s because every time you say “Yes” to something, you are, by default, saying “No” to something else. And that can be a problem for leaders and managers when the “Yes” answers begin to get in the way of what’s really important.

Steve Jobs summed up this concept nicely in a now-famous quote. He said,

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done, as I am of the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Success, innovation, achieving your goals—whatever your focus may be, they all depend on speaking that most difficult English word. They all depend on saying “No.”

Whose life are you living?

Taken to its fullest extreme, if we let “Yes” rule our world, we could end up living our life to suit everyone else’s priorities rather than our own. Yes, it’s nice when someone acknowledges our skills by turning to us for help. But we have to keep in mind that if we’re going to pick up something new, we’ll likely have to drop something else to make it possible. What is that something else going to be? Which option—the something new or the something else—is going to be worth my time and effort? Which option is going to lead me to success? Which option is going to lead me to innovation? Which option is going to lead me to my goals? As leaders, we need to be able to discern the difference and make the right decision.

Keep in mind that it’s important to say “Yes” to the right opportunities, but it’s even more important to say “No” to the wrong opportunities. If we aren’t able to take a stand for ourselves and say “No” once in a while, we’re going to find ourselves governed by the dictates of everyone else. What’s more, we’ll eventually come to resent the fact that we aren’t living for ourselves. It might not happen right away, but, with time, it will destroy our mojo and leave us bitter and dejected. That’s not a good place from which to lead.

Sage advice

On the first day I started working, I was given some sage advice by a senior manager. At my induction, he said,

“Let me tell you something Peter. The secret to success is learning what to let drop off the end of your desk.”

That was—and still is—a wonderful summation of this concept of knowing when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.”

As leaders, we needn’t be afraid to let some things drop. We needn’t be afraid to say “No.” This notion of equating things dropped with saying “No” is actually very apt. How distressed are you when something gets pushed off your desk? It’s not the end of the world, after all. If you need that thing in the future, you can always pick it back up again. Saying “No” is exactly the same. Yes, it may mean that you miss some opportunities. But the one sure thing about opportunities is that there are more where that came from. And next time, maybe you’ll be in a better position to say “Yes” rather than “No.”

Give it a try

So why not give it a try? Fill your days with what’s important to you by uttering the most difficult two letters, the most difficult syllable, the most difficult single word in the entire English language. Take back your success, your innovation, your life, by saying “No.”

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Peter Anderton

Author: Peter Anderton

A sought after coach and change agent, Peter has spent many years in Organisational Development, focusing on developing high performance leadership teams, executive coaching, strategy and change. He builds relationships quickly and is as comfortable in the boardroom as he is at ‘grass roots’. Known for his integrity, energy and a real passion for making things happen, he has a uniquely direct yet supportive style that delivers.

Peter is a qualified NLP master practitioner, a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD and a Chartered Engineer.