Can You Say No To a VIP?

Sometimes, the answer is no. Respectfully, I must decline. No, this will not do. Nein. It’s just that I find saying yes is more fun than saying no. In fact, I find “yes” to be a powerful word. “Yes” makes people happy and I enjoy making people happy.  I love to give people the green light and let them do wonderful, fulfilling things that satisfy them, things that help them grow and achieve special goals.

But certain behaviors or ideas one may find unacceptable, unsustainable, untrustworthy, or merely unattainable. We find them upsetting or unsavory or unrealistic. To such words or conduct we may even have an intense visceral reaction that literally makes us pull away, as if to shield our offended sensibilities. It may seem counter-intuitive, but think about it—what we reject defines us because our core values, priorities and boundaries often become evident only when they are challenged. Saying no to requests that compromise one’s values announces and reconfirms those values.

Saying no not only represents the conviction to honor one’s own values, priorities, self-respect, or boundaries, but can also be about conserving and managing one’s energy, time and other resources. To politely refuse certain invitations allows one to direct energy and attention to people and activities that matter most. Saying no is strategic.

Now, let’s be honest—saying “no” to a VIP, especially when the VIP is a paying client, carries risk. Certain powerful people have the ability to make an offer that cannot be refused (at least not without damage). Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to explore ways to decline that which we dislike, mistrust, or just find inconvenient for some reason. Disappointing someone whom one would much rather please is stressful.  Think of it this way—when you feel it necessary to voice doubts about a strategy or proposal makes your expertise, insights and values known to colleagues and keeps you true to yourself. You may also prevent an ill-conceived idea from gaining support (maybe because others were not inclined to speak out?) and causing an ugly crash and burn somewhere down the line.

Tact and diplomacy will be needed when saying no to a VIP, no doubt about it. Pour oil on potentially rough waters to head off the appearance of insubordination and ensure that disappointment doesn’t escalate to insult. Take care to separate your discomfort with supporting a certain strategy or participating in a proposed project from your feelings about the people involved. Make it strictly business and emphasize that you support the organization, its mission and history. Below are suggestions for how one might diplomatically say no and not burn bridges:

  • Provide facts. Don’t simply say “no.” Express the reasoning behind your decision. Most importantly, communicate the values that influenced your decision. If you don’t provide the context, others will do it for you, and the picture they paint might not be pretty.  Unflattering motives could be assigned to you and your reputation is sure to suffer as a result.  Don’t create a mystery for others to solve. Cite data and share the motivations that led to your position.
  • Acknowledge values trade-offs. Let others know that you respect the priorities  they aim to promote. Decisions are rarely as simple as black and white, right and wrong. They typically involve value trade-offs. To soften your “no” vote and avoid unnecessary offense, remember to compliment the worthy values that may motivate others’ positions.
  • Be tentatively confident. It’s important to take a firm stand, but avoid appearing intransigent or aggressive. You’ll alienate more people than you’ll convince if you make absolutist statements.  Show that you’re a thoughtful person who has arrived at a reasonable conclusion. Opening statements such as, “I’ve researched the matter and learned…” and “I believe…” demonstrate a combination of resolve and humility that avoids provoking unnecessary conflict.
  • Ask for permission to say no. When saying no to a VIP, particularly someone who might misinterpret your refusal as disrespect, it can be helpful to ask permission to say no. This allows you to honor their authority while maintaining your integrity. For example, you could say, “Boss, you’ve asked me to take on a new project. I think it is a bad idea for me to take it on and I’d like to share my reasons. If, however, you don’t want to hear them, I’ll take it on and do my best. What would you like?” In most cases, the boss will feel obligated to hear you out. If the boss refuses to hear your reservations, you might decide to say no to continuing your employment there!

 

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: L-R Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson The Supremes sing Stop in the Name of Love in 1965.

Advertisements

Corporate Social Responsibility and Freelance Consultants

“We live in the era of the conscious consumer,” says Marco Scognamilio, global CEO of RAPP, the advertising agency based in New York City. “No longer content to separate their politics from their wallets, buyers want to know that the brands they’re supporting also stand for something.”

Freelance consultants and business leaders for the past decade or so have been encouraged by our customers and communities to disclose our organizations’ guiding principles and adherence to best practices and demonstrate our philanthropic priorities.  By the early 2000s, the term corporate social responsibility came to encompass not only standard business ethics, but also actions that promote some form of social good, as interpreted by the organization leaders.  It’s now common for businesses, in particular national and global enterprises, to take a public stand on social justice issues such as environmentalism and sustainability, public health promotion, civil rights and individual liberties.

Organizations large and small that operate in certain industries, most notably entertainment and fashion, are now well aware that publicly supporting individual liberties (that in some demographic segments are promoted as civil rights) is a must-do.  Activists are ready to quickly call out all who do not fall in line.

So it may be useful to evaluate how your organization can demonstrate some measure of your personal values as a way to show current and prospective customers that your purpose is not solely to make a profit, or even to do work at which you excel and enjoy, but also show your concern for the well-being of fellow citizens, wildlife, or the environment.

Kara Alaimo, Assistant Professor of Public Relations at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY points out, “There’s huge demand right now for professionals who can teach businesses how to navigate these new consumer expectations and how corporations can  take stances on political issues and practice good corporate social responsibility.”

Hildy Kuryk, founder of Artemis Strategies, a New York City consulting firm that creates marketing messages for socially aware customers, so that consumer-facing companies can deepen their civic engagement and communicate their value story more persuasively, cautions, “What’s astonishing is that we’re consistently seeing major brands that can’t seem to apply basic principles to how to make decisions when they’re taking stances on political issues.”

I concur that wise organization leaders are advised to be circumspect when evaluating which social or political causes to publicly support.  Ms. Kuryk goes on to say, “In an unpredictable political landscape, brands need to be acutely aware and cautious (about) whom they align with.” No kidding.

But I trust her instincts.  If your company can afford the Artemis Strategies consulting fee, I recommend that you call her and commence the building of your organization’s social responsibility based marketing campaign strategy and messages.  Those who are not so flush are invited to spend another 5 minutes reading this post, at no charge, and make note of my respectfully offered observations and suggestions.

Declaring the values that guide your business practices will humanize you, differentiate you from competitors and make you less likely to be perceived as a commodity.  It’s smart marketing and effective branding.  So choose the causes that you’ll publicly associate with your organization very carefully and avoid the possible disapproval of current and prospective customers.  Keep what might be considered controversial in your private life.

Widely approved causes include libraries, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, working against hunger or homelessness, remedial education and raising money for research used to discover therapies that would eradicate or more effectively treat serious diseases.  I’m a board member at my local branch library and serve on the committee that selects local authors for our guest author series.  Previously, I’ve conducted “Dress for Success” and networking workshops for low-income women who were in a 20 week job training program and for several years I was a board member at an organization that transfers donated original art to sparsely funded social service agencies.

Find a cause that resonates with you and your leadership team and decide what your organization’s budget will allow you to donate.  Alternatively, it’s sometimes also possible to provide volunteer labor, where your employees spend a day assisting a not-for-profit agency to deliver certain services.

Publicize your organization’s involvement in social and philanthropic causes on your website, on social media, in the local business press and in your bio.  BTW, philanthropy can bring networking opportunities and it’s possible that you might meet your next client through volunteering.  You could do well by doing good.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Mohandas K. Gandhi (the Mahatma), leader of the campaign for independence in India, meets with Jawaharlal Nehru (l), who would become the first Prime Minister of India after independence from Great Britain, at the All-India Conference in Bombay (Mumbai), July 6, 1946.  © Associated Press