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RICHARDSON: Why is the answer always no?
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RICHARDSON: Why is the answer always no?

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YOU APPROACH a colleague with a request to do something in a new way. Your colleague responds immediately: “No. That’s not possible.”

Of course, it may not be possible, but perhaps it is, and your colleague just doesn’t want to investigate how it might be done. They want to keep doing it “the way it’s always been done.”

I have worked in four public institutions, each in a different state. While there are some state rules, along with some protocols from the governing groups for each state, many of the rules are just ingrained practices that each institution created.

Many of those practices have been in place for decades, created when the world was quite a different place. So when you ask if something can be done, the knee-jerk response is the traditional “no.” The person who asked will usually go away, which pleases the person who said “no.” Now he doesn’t have to try to solve a problem.

I have worked with folks who like to say, “No. Now, what was your question?” This person exists at every institution. They crave the status quo. Maybe they are lazy, or not very smart, or just cannot see beyond what already exists. But change must happen for organizations to grow, so getting a “no” response from a person should not make the requestor give up. If the change needs to occur or makes sense or, at the very least, should be explored, then the person asking should be tenacious and keep proposing their idea.

I once asked if I could do something in my business school. I was immediately told, “No, that’s against state regulations.” I knew it could not be against state regulations, because another public university business dean in my state was doing the thing I was requesting. In fact, I got the idea from him.

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So I pushed back a bit. It turned out that what was thought to be a state regulation was a university practice that had been in place for decades. Urban legend held that it was a state regulation. Fortunately, I kept pressing until we figured we actually could change our own practices, thereby allowing me to do what I had asked.

I have been fortunate to hire people to replace people who had the “no” mentality. As part of the hiring process, I’ve encouraged the new employee to refrain from knee-jerk responses to requests that are out of the ordinary.

This is, of course, easier when hiring folks new to the organization, as they have no preconceived ideas about what the internal rules or practices are. Promoting from within can be more challenging, as those folks have heard why things can and cannot be done for years. That does not mean, however, that internal candidates cannot learn to look for solutions.

So that’s what I ask of new employees, whether they come from inside or outside the organization. When asked to do something different, do some research. Try and find a way to say yes.

If the answer must be no, explain why. But don’t get a reputation as the “No. Now what’s your question?” person in the organization. That’s not what you want for either yourself or the company.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of

the College of Business at the

University of Mary Washington.

Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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