How to say NO to the boss!

It is a dilemma that everybody faces whether you are a consultant advising senior clients or an employee facing up to your boss. I’m talking about how to say ‘no’ or even ‘don’t do it’.

Reading today about the latest scandal to face a big brand – Nokia’s decision to run a fake advertisement (see, one can’t help thinking that somebody in Nokia or at their advertising agency should have spoken out: challenging the decision to fake an advert. But the question is why didn’t they voice an opinion and stop it happening.

You see, such advice can often be career or contract limiting.  The problem here is not necessarily confined to large-scale issues or even those that are ethically questionable or even those that have dubious intent – it can even involve the smallest of issues.

A few years ago I was faced with such a dilemma – for many years now senior managers have always latched onto the latest buzzwords or theories and in the private sector some of you will be familiar with the book ‘from good to great’ and the phrase about all being on the bus.  Fine – this all is but, it was somewhat a surprise that many years after the book publication that a senior public sector client declared to me that he was to launch a newsletter called ‘from good to great’ and that he wanted a picture of a great big red bus on the front of it.

In itself that wasn’t a problem. What I had difficulty with was that he intended this magazine, not for his employees, but for the general public. And his message was clear that if they didn’t like the changes he was proposing in terms of his organisation, they could, to use a phrase, get off the bus!

For me as a consultant it was also made clear that this was in the category of ‘just do it’. So what would you do in this situation? You have a contract to deliver, you need to earn a living and was this such a big deal?  You may have heard the old saying that the customer is always right.

The trouble is, this dilemma is not new or unique and you may relate to it yourself and it is also the reason so many brands end up in trouble.  You see the easiest way is to comply and saying ‘no’ is hard.  If one could be a ‘fly on the wall’ at Nokia – you can bet that investigations, enquiries, ‘witch hunts’ will all be underway – I suspect that somewhere along the line someone would have had that opportunity to question the decision to fake the advert, but the real question we have to ask is why they didn’t.  I think most of us know the answer but I would be interested to hear from anyone who has been brave enough to stand up and be counted and what consequences or outcome they faced.

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