Dear PM, You’re a Superhuman Who Is Allowed To Say No

By Chijioke Michael Egbulefu

Some weeks ago, ProductDive hosted Shreyas Doshi and one of the questions he answered was on time management for Product Managers. He said PMs had to find a way to stay away from unproductive meetings. He shared a system that works for him

That discussion got me thinking: How do you even say NO without rubbing off on the other party the wrong way? Beyond meetings, how do you decline to do things without coming off as a self-centered product manager who only prioritizes himself above others? 

Saying No in itself is a skill that yields enormous benefits when mastered. It doesn’t have to be done with guilt. But too much NO and you isolate yourself, create a negative image and probably miss out on opportunities. Too little, and you overbook yourself, bringing along a ton of stress into your life and work.

Saying yes is easier because:

– We typically do not want to hurt anyone’s feelings, disappoint or even anger them.

– We are worried about what others will think of us.

– Saying No can be awkward and embarrassing.

– The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is real.

Yet when we say decline to be part of some things, we create certain opportunities:

1. More time: There are only 24 hours in a day, and we can only use so much for others. When you say no, you claim more time for the things that truly matter to you and the work you do. You draw a healthy boundary around your time.

2. More energy:  No means you conserve energy to do the things that matter to you and your team. When we do the things that truly matter, the things we love, energy levels are always high. More energy makes you feel better and happier. Love + interest = >Energy.

3. Less stress: Going to meetings you do not want to go to or that you do not have to go to is a form of stress all on its own. As a PM, this is not the type of stress you want in your life. The type you want is the productive kind.

4. Focus: You get to focus on the things that make you grow professionally and personally. The things that spark your interests. The things that can be measured and that can move the team forward. No should come as a natural response when you set your priorities right.

5. Control: By saying no to things you cannot or do not want to do, you exercise assertion in a simple but effective way. When you assert your boundaries, you gain more respect and become less of a doormat.

6. Give others a chance to say yes: When you say no, you allow others to step up to challenges at work. They get the opportunity to grow and you get the opportunity to focus on your priorities. Everyone wins.

The following strategies can be used to say NO and not be seen as a pompous Jerk. Learned them from Michael Martin.

Take a moment to think about it: Giving an immediate answer is not always necessary. It’s perfectly ok to tell them you need some time to think about it before you make any commitments. Using the time you just bought, think about how the request or proposal fits in with your priorities and goals. Explore the pros and cons of a yes and no answer. 

Intentionally and deliberately deliver your answer: So, you’ve decided to say no and you need to inform the other party. The way your response is communicated to them will influence how they will perceive it and how they take it. It’s advisable to thank them for thinking about you in the first place and then to offer context for your decline. While it is ok to apologize, don’t be over-apologetic as this could make the exchange awkward and make you look unsure and less confident in your decision.

Offer an alternative, if possible: Let’s assume that you’ve been invited to a meeting that conflicts with something else on your schedule, you can recommend a less stressful, less conflicting way for you to be a part of it. Or point them towards a  capable replacement or resource. 

So, there it is. Product Managers are stressed enough already and declining some things to focus on some other things that truly matter to us is simply a sign of self-care and we all need a bit of self-care once in a while.

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