Telling People They’re Wrong With “No, But, and However” 

Leaders often demand that their employees take more initiative, make an effort to collaborate, and contribute more ideas and suggestions during discussions. What they don’t realize is that sometimes, their behavior indirectly discourages their team members from making meaningful contributions during discussions. Are you one of these leaders? 

“You’re wrong.”

Imagine that you’re in a meeting with your team, discussing ideas and strategy for the next quarter. As your team starts presenting their suggestions, you stop them and say, “You’re wrong.” What do you think will happen? 

When leaders insensitively shut down ideas contributed by team members, they inevitably demoralize the whole team. Other team members who witness this often no longer have the motivation to contribute to discussions. 

Think back and reflect on your behavior. Are you guilty of this? 

Perhaps you think you are not. You never tell your team members that they are wrong flat out. You are more sensitive and what you say might sound something like this: 

“That’s a good idea, but you need to think about…”

“I understand that, however…”

Sounds familiar? Although there are only a few leaders who will tell their team members that they’re wrong flat out, many of us in senior management often use other words like “but” or “however” to contradict other people’s opinions with our own. 

This does not only happen with leaders. Parents are often guilty of the same mistake. When a child gets a B  instead of an A on a test, many parents will say, “That’s great, but why can’t you get an A?”

Whenever you start a sentence with a “no”, “but”, “however” or other variation thereof, no matter how friendly your tone is, the message you’re trying to say to the other person is still, “You’re wrong, and what I’m saying is right.”

Although we have offered platitudes to make the person feel good, this interaction still negates their contribution, and nothing productive can happen after that. People who often use these words are the ones who try to consolidate power by subjugating others and stifling constructive input — in short, it’s the nicest form of bullying. 

Breaking the cycle of No, But, and However

To help leaders break this habit, Marshall Goldsmith created a simple exercise to reveal how often leaders tell people that they are wrong. 

Every time a leader uses a “no”, “but”, or “however”, he will charge them $20 (which will go to charity). At the end of the exercise, the leaders are often shocked at how many times they have used those words and they quickly try to find ways to change, so they can stop paying the fine to Marshall. 

Marshall has even tried this exercise on Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Marshall coached Bill Gates for a few days after he donated hundreds of millions of dollars to a charity in India. He fined him $20, $40, and $60 for every “sin” and the money collected was to be donated to the same charity. 

Not long after they started, Bill Gates said, “This is expensive”

Marshall answered, “Excuse me, you just donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the same charity two days ago, and now you’re complaining about 20 bucks?”

He looked at Marshall and said, “I forgot.” 

Marshall was floored. How can one forget that they have donated hundreds of millions of dollars? 

Here’s the difference. When Bill Gates donated millions of dollars for a wonderful cause, that’s him winning. When he has to pay $20 because he did something wrong, he’s losing. It’s very hard for winners not to constantly go through life winning, or trying to win. 

One of Marshall’s clients did this very exercise for one and a half hours and at the end of it, he turned to Marshall and said, “Thank you, I had no idea. I did that 21 times with you throwing it in my face. How many times would I have done it if you had not been throwing it in my face? 50 times? 100 times? No wonder people think I’m stubborn.”

How often do you use no, but, and however in a day when talking with your colleagues, employees, or even your family? 


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