Whether it's your parents or your boss, sometimes you just have to say 'no'.

Last week I stood up to my father.  Perhaps not in an I’ll-never-join-you, Star Wars kind of way, but on its own level and in its own galaxy it was every bit as important.  Bear with me as I briefly explain this tale, and the lesson I am taking from it which will impact upon potentially the day to day business I carry out (or perhaps don’t).

It’s not often that I receive any e-mails from my dad; despite being pretty well regarded in his own profession, he got to his position before the advent and widespread take-up of electronic mail so isn’t as au-fait with it as his offspring are.  It was therefore with some surprise then that I began getting his name popping up in my inbox.  Were these family secrets he was choosing to convey to me?  Perhaps he had decided that e-mail was the correct medium to impart some pearls of wisdom with which I would be able to make my work better and therefore lead a happier life. With a mixture of interest and fear I opened the latest e-mail which I, along with others, had been copied into.

Without regurgitating it word for word, I’ll say simply that the first line could have been rewritten to open with ‘I’m not racist, but…’.  What followed was the usual chain e-mail which started off with some valid and real concerns about society and that something needed to be done to help people be proud of being British.  So far so normal, if a little right wing in language.  Of course, what followed was an inexplicable and random leap to somehow bringing immigrants into the arguement, and blaming all of society’s ills upon them.

Normally when these missives arrive from whatever source I simply hit the shift-delete combo.  I know that my dad isn’t a racist, even if he does have some strange aversion to most continental food, and that this was probably just an e-mail he’d given a quick skim read through and decided to send on as proof that he ‘gets the internet’.  However, this time it felt a litle bit different.  I’d been sent something which I didn’t agree with by someone who’s opinion I value and which contained a message which, in its own small way, was part of the underlying problems which divide groups of people on arbitrary or seemingly random lines. So this time I drew my fingers away from the total delete keys, took the bait and hit reply instead.  I didn’t get abusive, patronising or evangelical in my response, simply pointing out that whilst I understood his sentiment, the arguments the e-mail he put forward to support them detracted significantly from his meaning, and in essence did more harm than good.  It was with no small amount of trepidation and a twinge of fear that I hit the send button and sat back to await my reply.

Would he be angry, and fly off the handle at me for having the cheek to not only disagree with him but to tell him he was part of the problem and to copy others (siblings in the main) into the reply?  Would he refuse to copy me in to future such e-mails, considering it not worth the hassle of trying to convince me that he was right, cutting me out of the loop entirely?  Would he ‘take it offline’ and speak to me in person to tell me that I shouldn’t have shown other people that I disagreed?

Actually, in the end none of that happened.  He made a few jokes on a bit of a tangent, and after a few more light-hearted back and forths which included others I felt I’d managed to get my opinion across, said in clear terms that I didn’t agree with that message and that I wouldn’t be willing to stand by and be party to something which – however benign in intent – actually made me uncomfortable.  No-one got hurt, and I honestly believe that we both learned a little more about each other and have a greater understanding and level of respect for the others views and attitudes.

Now I hear you wondering what on earth any of that has to do with local government.  It may have been entirely unrelated to normal work, but in its own way this incident is changing a major part of how I have worked in the past and how I hope to work in the future.

It showed me I can say no to those more senior than I.

How many of us have been in a situation when we have been asked to do something which in our professional or personal judgement felt not to be the correct course of action?  Be it to cut someone out of a meeting invitation, to sign off a report which wasn’t up to standards, to be told not to ask certain questions in an open meeting, to cut corners in some way shape or form or simply to not worry about doing the best job we can because it doesn’t really matter; these situations and more happen all the time (and all of these have happened wither to me or to people I have worked with).

Generally, should the person making the request be more senior than the person carrying out the task, it is expected that the more junior colleague will simply swallow their pride and their argument, get their heads down and get on with it.  No-one likes to be singled out as a trouble maker, especially those who are looking to have any sort of career in local government.  Surely it’s easier simply to make a quiet protest and then sit back to get ready to throw the ‘I told you so’s’ back into peoples faces much later (very quietly of course)?

Easier perhaps, but better or the right thing to do?  No.  It actually takes great courage to stand up and say no to your boss; courage is doing the right thing, even when it’s not the easiest thing.  Whether you are fresh off the NGDP scheme or a veteran of countless full council meetings, having the guts to tell the person who sits a branch or two above you in the great heirarchy tree that their big idea isn’t right is a massive deal.

I first came across this when working in a previous authority as part of an events team.  We were putting on an event few weeks down the line and my manager took a fairly standard advert to our communications team so they could arrange for it to be run in the local press.  It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone actually say no to a request like this.  The comms team told us that they could of course run the ad as it was, but that actually it wasn’t good enough in terms of design or language, and that if we wanted maximum impact (or any impact at all) then we should go away and think it through again.  After all, they weren’t simply functionaries programmed only to do tasks; they had the benefit of experience and professional judgement to call upon, and felt a genuine responsibility to let people know if they felt standards were too low.

Saying no when you are involved in running a project is tough; there is the concern that others must have thought things through and are doing things for a reason, and that there is little more you could add.  If you think something is a bad idea, then there must be something you are missing or which you don’t understand fully.

On the other hand, perhaps there isn’t.  Perhaps others are in a similar situation to you and are going through the motions, or are waiting for someone else to say that it’s a bad idea.  Or perhaps they genuinely think it’s a good idea, but they themselves aren’t in full possession of the facts, or haven’t seen all of the consequences of their actions.  There really is no better way to find out than to say something.

Nobody wants a reputation for being difficult, for preventing projects from moving forward or for acting like a stroppy teenager when they don’t want to do something.  However, nobody also wants the reputation of being a yes-man/woman, someone who adds little other than support to things and someone who has Ron Burgundy moments and will pretty much do whatever they are told, regardless of their own misgivings or opinions.

Success depends on your backbone, not your wishbone – in this day and age, I’d like to see a few more of us taking a stand and speaking out when things in our organisations, big or small, aren’t right.  After all, if you don’t speak out now, who will and when?

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at:

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3 Comments on “No”

  1. benlowndes Says:

    Glad to see the comms team seen in this context – and hats off to them for not taking the easy route!

  2. I once chaired a contentious plublic meeting about a proposed children’s home, and had to shout down my father and insist he stop disrupting the meeting 🙂

  3. […] it’s difficult but essential that you tell hard truths to those more senior than you. It may result in short term pain, but is more valuable than almost […]

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