Product Manager? Here's Why You Need to Learn How to Say "No" with Grace and Style


Today we’re going to be talking about saying no. Specifically - how you can say no to customers and stakeholders with class and style so that you can maintain control of your roadmap without burning any of your bridges. Phew.

I know what you’re probably thinking. I hate saying no, me too. But with practice, you’ll get better at it. And with experience, you’re gonna realize that saying no is an essential part of being a successful PM.

But why are we so afraid of saying no in the workplace?

No = conflict and conflict is scary, right?

No is uncomfortable. It is pretty much the definition of conflict. So most people avoid conflict. So we avoid saying no. Instead we kind of say “yeah…maybe!!!” to things, which is no bueno.

The second thing is that you’re afraid of burning bridges. You need to maintain a good working relationship with people, and you think that saying no is going to make them not like you, but we don’t think that’s true.

We actually think you should say no more often, and here’s why.

It’s your job

The first reason you should say no more often is because people will respect your role as a PM.

Your job is to protect the roadmap.

You need to deliver what’s on there on time and by letting people add things that don’t fit with the product vision is sabotaging your own success as a PM.

So saying no helps you maintain control of the roadmap and do your job better.

You’ll be less stressed

Another thing is that you’re going to enjoy is less stress. It may be uncomfortable at first to say no to people, but in the long term you’re going to feel a lot better that you can actually focus on what’s important.

And you won’t have to do that awkward “Oh my gosh, I’m going to avoid Tim in sales because he keeps asking me to do things and I know we shouldn’t do them, but I don’t want to say no”.

That’s no good either. So by saying no, you get that awkward lingering tension over with.

3 ways to say “no” with style and class

Alright, so covered why you should say no more often. So now let’s talk about the three things you need to do to say no with style and class.

Empathize and gather your thoughts

When a new request comes in, your first thought may be…“what the heck was this person thinking”?

When that happens, take a step back. Realize that they’re coming from somewhere.

Now is the time to get into their mindset and figure out why they asked for something. Get inside of their head.

Oh, and assume the best intentions.

This person probably wasn’t requesting this thing to be a jerk. They probably had a very valid reason.

Once you’ve empathized with what they’re asking for, it’s time to develop your reason for why you’re saying no. Then you know.

“We don’t feel like doing this” is not a reason.

Good reasons might be…

  • we don’t have enough resources to accomplish this right now
  • it doesn’t align with the vision
  • we have other higher or higher priority things to take care of

So step one, empathize and gather your thoughts.

Say no without saying no (if you can)

A lot of times people will come to you with a request that there’s often a very good work around to. If that’s the case, help them implement it in a way that doesn’t require your engineering team’s time.

Maybe there’s a Zapier flow that you can set up. Maybe there’s a script. Maybe it’s a SQL query. Try to find some other way to solve their problem.

You can also let them know if there are other similar things on the roadmap that may also match their goals for this specific request. Perhaps they’re just not aware of them.

Also, ask them to gather more evidence for you and help them build a stronger use case that you’ll reconsider in the future. If they’re not willing to do any additional work around it, chances are that it’s not really that important to them.

Show appreciation

Not everything that’s going to make it to you is a good idea, but some things will be.

You don’t want to discourage people from coming to you and presenting new possible features or opportunities. Encourage it!

So if they come to you with something, even if you think it’s a little bit silly, make sure you let them know that you appreciate their idea.

No is not a negative thing

You were hired to guide the product vision, and if you say yes to everything, you won’t be able to do your job successfully. So saying no is just a part of the process and you’re something that as a PM you’re going to have to learn to embrace.

Next time you’re presented with something that doesn’t align with your product vision, try the steps we covered.

It may be uncomfortable, but your roadmap and your team will thank you for it.

In the meantime, happy nay-saying.