“They are decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be important”. – Winston Churchill

In a recent discussion with the executive team of a not-for-profit, our conversation turned to their partnering organizations that did or did not provide financial support. I was intrigued to learn of the cultural personality types for these organizations. One of them was described as “professional and efficient”. One was described as “great to work with” and “possessing a high degree of integrity”. When we came to the third, the upbeat tone shifted and heads began to shake left and right. The third organization was described as “frustrating to work with” and as “masters of the slow no”. I was intrigued by the description. For one thing, I had never had any direct dealings with the third organization and secondly, they are a major player and by most regards considered very successful in their industry and markets.

As I peeled back this discussion around the slow no, I discovered an organizational culture that openly acknowledged the slow no as a decision making process. I was a bit astounded to find that this particular organization was well known for entertaining conversations and dragging them out indefinitely; never actually communicating a decision yet letting no decision effectively result in a “no”. Interestingly enough, these nonprofit execs had actually communicated with the organization’s chief executive and this decision process appeared to come directly from the top – to the extent that members of the organization jokingly referenced their “slow no” culture. As a sales and business development professional, I am well aware of prospective customers notorious for dragging decisions out, not making decisions, or simply not providing notification of a decision in a timely manner. In the blog post, The Curse of the Slow No, the author describes this phenomena from a sales perspective. However, to have a decision making culture that is known internally as slow no indicates a tremendous lack of character and integrity.

Why in the world would a “slow no” decision making culture exist? Even though I don’t like it, I can understand why a specific decision might get thrown into a “slow no” situation. Here are some common reasons

  1. Analysis Paralysis The decision maker doesn’t feel that they have all of the facts so they keep wanting more to help them evaluate.
  2. Kind Heart, Cruel Process The decision maker doesn’t want to have to actually say “no” and drags things out to avoid the direct let down. Maybe you’ll just go away.
  3. Not a Priority Let’s face it, your timeline and the decision maker’s are likely not the same. Slow no’s can happen when your request simply isn’t on the decision maker’s radar.
  4. Wait and See Perhaps there are changes ahead that the decision maker is waiting to unfold. They may or may not have anything to do with your request but potential change is a classic excuse to make no decision and put you into slow no hell.

Regardless of the the reason, there is a flip side to this from an organizational perspective. As the requester, you have to anticipate the realities of the decision process. That is simply part of being dependent on someone else for something. It is the basis for commerce and you will always deal with it in some fashion. However, what if the decision making culture of your organization is one of “slow no’s”? What does this say about you as a leader and your organizational integrity? I understand, big bureaucratic organizations tend to let decisions happen or not happen. Also, simply because my nonprofit experienced slow no decision making doesn’t mean that the organization in question always makes decisions this way. Every organization has to say “no” to many, many things. That is part of running an organization. And they obviously are saying “yes” to something; just because our request gets put into limbo doesn’t mean that they don’t make any decisions.

The problem in this scenario is that I described three other organizations above. Two displayed cultural characteristics that showed integrity even when they said “no”. People don’t expect a “yes” every time, but they do resent being dragged along with a slow no. If you or your organization engage in slow no decision making, you are saying the following:

  • I don’t respect you or your time.
  • I’m not decisive.
  • I don’t have the courage to just say “no”.
  • I don’t have clear priorities or an effective decision making framework.
  • I lack decision making integrity.
  • I’m willing to waste my time by pretending to evaluate something in which I’m not really interested or something that I do not intend to pursue.
  • I’m not honest.

My guess is that most decision makers would not choose to be categorized by any of the points above. Slow no decisions are really reflections of a lack of decision. It is a do nothing approach which of course, is its own decision. The answer to this dilemma is really quite simple. As a decision maker, you avoid your own slow no curse by being decisive and communicating clearly. (For more on the power of decisiveness, check out The Invigorating Power of Decisiveness). As I consider the discussion with my fellow board members, I see some practical approaches to converting a potential slow no decision into something with more integrity and better results:

  1. If you have zero interest, then say so immediately. Don’t belabor it. Don’t gyrate. Just say “No”. This allows both parties to move on with clarity.
  2. Delegate it. If you are too busy to focus or have other priorities, then had it off to a lieutenant for evaluation or a decision. If it is not important to you, see #1 above.
  3. Be honest. Too simple, right? Apparently not. If you have doubts, communicate them. If you are unconvinced, share it. By being honest with doubts and hesitations, you are showing respect to those waiting on our decision and you are engaging them in the process. Perhaps they have an answer to your doubt? If there is simply no way you are ever going to fund, buy or engage with the request, regardless of the reason, then tell them immediately. See #1 above.
  4. Be Clear. If there is a true decision process, then share it. If there are other questions to be answered or check boxes to be checked, then say so. Strong decision making begins with a clear set of priorities and a clear process. Show integrity by sharing your process and letting it do its job. If you have no intention of putting the request into your process, see #1 above.

As business professionals, we know that most requests are rejected. They have to be or organizations would cease to function. As a leader, you have to make countless “yes” and “no” decisions. Show integrity by being decisive and communicating it clearly. You will earn the respect of your team and those who live with your decisions. Even if it isn’t the decision they wanted.

Indecision and delays are the parents of failure”. – George Canning