Confronting a Culture of “NO”

When we work with large enterprises, we sometimes confront cultures of “No.” Not the strategic “no”, not even the occasional “no”, but a reflexive “no.” An automatic and unconscious rejection of new ideas and new approaches. 

In these circumstances, even employees that lament hearing “no” don’t realize how often they say it themselves.

As this culture of “No” intensifies, a verbal “no” isn’t even required anymore. It’s communicated in side glances. In heavy sighs. Faces turned away.

Left unchecked, “no” becomes less of a response and more of a way of being. Until that is, this way of being leads to organizational unbeing.

So if you’re a leader working to create change, how do you overcome a culture of “no”?

Start by acknowledging that systems operate for a reason, even if it’s an unhealthy one. You can’t reverse the course of culture through optimism and cheer alone (but those do help). You have to confront the root causes.

  1. Is the case for doing something new clear to all? Be prepared to answer “Why?” and “Why now?” for your key partners and teammates. Selling a new solution is at least 80% selling the problem, and this task becomes even more critical for senior leaders. Be ready to lead by repetition.
  2. Is the idea safe to try? You should have an idea what you’re risking by trying something new (just as much as you know not trying something new is risky). For completely novel ideas or ways of working, try to reduce the risk as much as possible. For example, pick one customer cohort, one product line, or one internal project to try something new with before you rush into scaling an untested idea.
  3. Is there enough slack in the workload to try something new? People who are overworked have a hard time embracing new ideas. How could they? As a leader, look for ways to reduce their workload by reprioritizing tasks and cutting down on bureaucracy.
  4. Has institutional knowledge created institutionalization? High-retention rates can actually lead to cultures of “no” because of a lack of new ideas and perspectives migrating into the company. Moreover, in some organizations knowing “how things are done here” becomes a badge of honor. As a leader, you need to work with your long-term employees to help them see that doing things in a new way isn’t necessarily a threat to their security or status.
  5. Is it clear when “no” is the right answer? Not all “no’s” are bad, but without a clear and actionable strategy teams can find themselves saying either yes or no to every new request. Strategy is a series of choices and trade-offs, so be prepared to make those decisions explicit for your teams.
  6. Is saying “yes” rewarded? Culture is the shared reality of work and that reality is shaped by the behaviors that are invited and rewarded. Cultures of “no” often cater most to the detractors, but change is borne on the backs of the willing. Celebrate the team members willing to explore the unknown with you.
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