We all do it. We agree to do something that we immediately regret.
Sometimes we even propose on work we know we don't want. Part of it is not knowing where our next work is coming from. Part of it is knowing we have mouths to feed or payroll to make.
Part of taking on projects that we shouldn't comes from plain ol' guilt. Those of us in the USA who grew up in the sixties and before probably heard from our parents that we should clean our plates because of the starving children in [insert far-off place].
Turning away paying work can feel like brazenly defying the universe. Not accepting an opportunity to earn money, especially in this economy, can feel akin to passing up food that someone else would surely be grateful for.
Difficulty in saying no definitely oozes over into volunteer activities and requests from people who'd like to pick our brains. Any time we are flattered to be asked to do something, it's especially hard to say no. And, believe me, the flatterer knows this!
WRONG CLIENT, WRONG WORK, WRONG TIME
Not all work is good work. It's not all enjoyable. It's not all profitable.
If we don't really want to do something, we probably don't do it very well—at least not compared to doing work we are passionate about (and for customers we actually do enjoy serving).
Bad customers suck us dry, deflating our team's morale, and taking more than their fair share of our energy. They leave too little of us for good customers. And if we really don't "feel it" with regard to working with someone, they definitely will sense it.
Client or customer selection is a detailed topic unto itself that I won't go into here, but the fundamentals are the same as for evaluating your key clients if you want to check out that article.
If you're like me, sometimes you really do want to do the work, but know you'll be strapped for resources or time to achieve it, and yet you commit to it. We let that client down when we fall short. This happens all the time in firms I work with; overpromising and underdelivering.
A genuine desire to do something doesn't mean that it can miraculously happen.
All of these scenarios threaten our service reputations. Plus they make us unhappy and bum out our teams.
GO WITH YOUR GUT
When it comes to prospective clients, tune in to that not-a-fit vibe. A friend recently got a call to do a potentially sizable project and he fairly quickly developed a bad feeling about the company.
Strike 1. The wrong person called: the inquiry for very strategic work was from a contractor, not even an employee, rather than the decision-maker. Not optimal, but forgivable.
Strike 2. Indications of a poor service culture: the company's regular receptionist was extremely obnoxious. Permitting someone like this to represent the company speaks volumes and is hard to overlook.
Strike 3. Bad manners: Eager to proceed on the time-sensitive project, the decision-maker promised to send a necessary document, but didn't. A handful of gentle prompts by phone and email went unanswered. Blow-offs are totally disrespectful.
A full month later, the decision-maker sent the document, "anxious" to get going. My friend politely declined to move ahead despite the potential to now tack on a rush charge. He'd become uneasy about the way the company does business. And he knew from past experience that good client relationships start with rapport and mutual respect; he had lost respect for them, and didn't trust them to do their end of the work for a successful project.
Many of us would have taken that work and grumbled about it. Which is the right decision?
KNOWING YOUR LIMITS
A very different scenario: I had a wonderful client with a project that we'd planned to do together ... a second phase following a successful first phase. But a handful of business and personal events were unfolding that, when I was completely honest with myself, meant I wouldn't be able to meet the timeframe and deliver the quality I require of myself.
I begged out. That was a year and a half ago. Last week, I ran into the firm's managing partner and he greeted me saying, "I have so much respect for you declining the project and knowing you couldn't do it to your standards."
I certainly never imagined that saying no to the work would have that effect; rather, I thought they'd be upset with me.
WAYS TO SAY NO
Short and sweet. No apologies or explanations are needed unless you dropped the ball or are inconveniencing someone by changing your mind. Justifying your decision can sound wimpy and might make it seem like there's still room for discussion. And excuses sound lame. Just say: "No thank you."
Honestly. Transparency has been a social-media buzzword for years and has moved into general business practice. Say, "I have to pass because I don't believe I can do it that fast" or "as well as I should." Say if you don't do that type of work or if you don't have the right people for it (and point them to someone who can help). And go ahead and tell them if you don't think you're a culture or personality fit.
Artfully. Years ago, I told my good friend Ron Baker that I found it hard to say no to people. He told me that his mentor, an elegant lady in her 50s, would simply say: "I'd love to but I just don't want to."
How honest is that? Particularly good for the volunteer thing...
Softly. Maybe you want to buy some time to give an opportunity more consideration. Or let someone down easy. An article called "The Art of Saying No" proposes we try the answer: "We'll see" just as we tell kids when we really mean no, but we aren't interested in hearing their protests.
Whether it's the wrong work, the wrong customer, bad timing, or simply another thing you can't take on, free yourself from regret and discover how liberating it is to say no.