Be Honest: Do You Say Yes Anyway?

I was having an interesting conversation yesterday with an association executive about the phenomenon of trying to say yes to everyone. It seems to be a common occurrence in the association world. We say yes to everyone, and then figure out later how to make it happen.

I wrote about the fallacy of trying to please everyone in the Always Done It That Way book, which is similar. Trying to please everyone doesn’t work. Some times you are simply going to have to say no to a constituency, and they will be unhappy.

And fundamentally I think that is what we are trying to avoid. We don’t like to make people unhappy. This is true at the organizational level, as well as at the personal level (at least for some of us). I know personally that I have a great challenge in saying no to people. I love to say yes, and I don’t want the conflict that will show up if I tell someone no.

But honestly, I have done some reflecting on that situation, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a big myth. True, when you tell people no, they may get unhappy. But I just don’t think it is as bad as we assume it will be. That group of vocal members that wants you to do something that is not in the best interests of the organization? Yep, when you tell then no, they will be unhappy. But the world won’t end.

And, more importantly, something else happens when you tell them no. You are being strong. You are being clear. You are taking your world right into theirs and engaging them. They may not like your answer right now, but the cumulative effect of acting strongly, clearly, and with intention should not be underestimated.

Saying yes may please people, but it also tends to make you invisible. I’ve heard association people say that’s a good thing. It’s the members’ organization, after all. We staff should be in the background. Background is okay, but you can still see the background! You know it’s there and you know what it looks like. Background is different than invisible. In fact, I think we should start thinking more clearly about how we say yes, so we can do so with strength and intention.

Whatever you do, you need to show up.


  1. Sandra G.
    23.09.2008 at 2:03 pm

    I think you are psychic. This is exactly what I needed to read (hear) today!

  2. 23.09.2008 at 8:48 pm

    Interesting post Jamie. Personally I think you are mostly correct in what you wrote…
    I am one of those people who likes to say yes because I don’t want the members to be disappointed. Our organization is one that likes to say yes to our members as much as possible because as you said “it’s their organization.”
    At the same time, as you said, there are times when it is necessary to say no because something that is being proposed won’t work. In those times though, I don’t think that saying no without anything else is the way to handle it.
    I always think that if there is a possible solution that would be amenable to those proposing something, even though it’s not exactly what they proposed, you should come back with “no, but what about this”… That way, your members know that you’re trying to work with them and listening to their needs.
    Then, engaging them in the solution that you propose is another good way to make sure that they are not upset or unhappy.
    So, to answer the question in your title, I do usually say yes, but if I do have to say no, I always try to make sure that I am doing so while trying to propose something that makes sense for both those proposing something and the organization…

  3. 24.09.2008 at 10:59 am

    Thanks Bruce. I think Bill Ury wrote one of his “getting to” books that talks about this (Getting to Yes, Getting Past No, etc.). He has a Yes, No, Yes approach. “Yes I think your idea reflects important things. No, we can’t do exactly what you are asking. Yes, we can do THIS instead.”

  4. 24.09.2008 at 3:53 pm

    Maybe I’ve been around too long, but this is a “no brainer” to me.
    It is staff’s responsibility to say no when appropriate. Trying to make something happen that is impossible or a waste of resources or panders to someone’s ego doesn’t help anyone.
    Using a Metaphor:
    Sometimes members can’t see the forest for the trees and it’s our job to point out that next to the elm also stands an oak, a maple, and a pine. One tree’s wants can’t be placed over the needs of the forest.
    Getting a member to step back and realize there is more at stake than their pet project or idea is a service to the individual as well as the organization.

  5. 25.09.2008 at 5:28 pm

    It’s important to know when to say “no.”
    I once had a staff person who never said no. She was willing to roll out programs that weren’t ready when it was best to wait.
    She felt that anything was better than nothing. In many cases, though, later would have been better than now.