Project management practitioners often become accustomed to saying no to stakeholders.  Whether the issue is the inclusion of a new requirement or the fast tracking of a product feature, PMs learn that in order to maintain a balance between customer satisfaction and project metrics they have to be able to turn down certain requests.

Indeed as we look across various industries within the business spectrum this learned behavior of saying no is likely not something that is unique to project management.  Any professional who interacts with clients, employees, suppliers, or even peers has to develop this ability to say no.

The issue however is in the manner that the “no” is said rather than the fact that it is said at all.  To achieve success on projects in a manner that does not alienate stakeholders, PM practitioners have to go beyond facts and figures and into the world of leadership soft-skills.

If we look at this issue from the perspective of the customer I am sure that we can all identify a variety of situations where we’ve made requests that were unrealistic or unreasonable.  I feel certain that our ultimate satisfaction regarding these situations were colored not by whether the supplier or project team were able to say “yes” but rather by the way they responded to our request.

Even as consumers in retail or restaurant situations our dissatisfaction is often linked to the attitude that we encounter rather than the actual service that we receive.  For instance, we might be willing to quickly forgive delays in service at a restaurant that has a waiter with a good attitude, especially one who is able to quickly resolve situations in a manner that defuses irritation.  On the other hand, we are likely going to remain annoyed by the service at a different restaurant if the staff seem genuinely annoyed by our presence, even if they extend us a discount.

The same can be true of project management situations where the PM practitioner is often the messenger of bad new or that dreaded “no” answer.  The way that this practitioner delivers that “no” will indeed have a significant impact on the stakeholder reaction.

While attitude does go a long way in helping the PM practitioner, we also have to recognize that stakeholders often require a logical reason associated with that “no” answer.  If the organization is not able to articulate this to the various stakeholder groups, the project is likely going to encounter trouble.

One practice that I’ve adopted whenever I am put in such a position of having to say no to a client or stakeholder group is to highlight the negative impact associated with saying yes.  I’ve found that on the whole once my stakeholders share the same understanding as the delivery organization saying no becomes a bit easier.