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Defeating the Culture of No, Part I

Have you ever sat in a meeting, tried to move things forward, and instead of a constructive meeting about possibilities, it’s become an open session on why anything proposed isn’t possible? Have you ever worked in an environment where most of the meetings you’ve had end up this way?

Chances are, if you’ve ever worked in government or you’ve ever worked in the enterprise, you have. Whether it’s just that one cynical guy in the corner, your general counsel’s office, or, well, you, anybody who has worked for a reasonable period of time has encountered this kind of culture. I call it the “Culture of No.”

The Culture of No is a pervasive culture that’s awful to work in. It’s a culture of mitigation. It’s the culture that prefers short-term preservation at the expense of long-term lifespan, and it works tirelessly to protect incumbency above all else.

The Culture of No is not native to government, but it thrives especially well in democratic governments and regulated bodies. But the Culture of No can thrive anywhere it’s not kept in check: your local non-profit, a small start-up, city hall, or a Fortune 10 business. At its best, the Culture of No provides friction for obviously good ideas to move forward and thrive. At its worst, it grinds at our ability to get things done.

So what can be done about the Culture of No? How do we get past it?

First let’s talk about the root causes of the Culture of No.

1. Risk Mitigation

As an institution grows, its primary focus shifts from innovation to preservation. Once it reaches a certain threshold — be that as an incorporated government or a market-dominant business — it starts to entrench itself. This is a natural fact of business and it’s somewhat ecological: trees crop out sunlight, preventing a more diverse ecosystem from growing.

Once an institution enters its dominance phase, the culture of it inevitably shifts towards risk mitigation. Any form of innovation carries with it an inherent risk. This desire for preservation can often outweigh a company’s typical culture of innovation, and provide fertile ground for the Culture of No.

2. Burnout

Sometimes it only takes one person to give rise to the Culture of No. Someone who is overworked, bored, or otherwise checked-out may subscribe internally to the Culture of No. Anyone that’s worked with a poorly managed IT department has probably encountered a developer who sits in meetings and tells people why things are impossible.1

Sometimes that engineer is right — but sometimes that engineer is just indoctrinated in the Culture of No. They’re simply burned out or checked-out enough that their mind is in a panic whenever the appearance of new work comes up. The answer is no. That can become a cultural phenomenon, too. Someone’s excessive no causes others to burn out and get indoctrinated into the culture, too.

3. Power

Finally, it feels powerful to say no to someone’s ideas. It’s an exertion of dominance over someone else in the workplace. The no-sayer gets to prove to everyone in the meeting how smart and powerful they are by shooting down an idea. From my observations, a lot of younger, mostly male professionals2 who have seen initial success tend to suffer from this route into the Culture of No. They push back against any new idea that doesn’t fit their world view.

How to Defeat the Culture of No

The most important thing about all of these causes is that if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us have been accomplices to the Culture of No. There’s no special thing about you, dear reader, that makes you immune to the disease that your neighbor can catch. The Culture of No isn’t an annual battle, or even a daily one. It’s a battle to fight hour by hour.

One might think that to defeat the Culture of No, one must adopt the “Culture of Yes.” That, too, is dangerous. The Culture of Yes: doing things for the sake of doing them, without their due diligence, is no way to live, and it’ll eventually empower the Culture of No down the road.

The Culture of Yes is what the Culture of No wants you to think the solution is, because you’ve bought in to its central hypothesis: the zero-sum game. The binary decision. That you either must do something or you must not do something, and that you must decide quickly.

The solution is to opt out of that mental model.

We’ll talk about how to do that in our next post.


  1. Guilty.

  2. I’m talking about myself here, too, obviously. When I was, you know, actually young.

Clay is the chairman and co-founder of The Department of Better Technology.

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