You’ve heard the old saying that “nice guys finish last” in business. I’m a nice guy and don’t believe it.

One word differentiates a nice guy who gets the most of his business life and a nice guy who always falls short.

This one word, a single syllable, is hard for most nice guys to say. But it will make all the difference between a man at the top of his game and a man struggling to hang on for dear life through a category-5 task tornado.

The word?

No.

Reasons nice guys finish last in business

People don’t do business with businesses. They do business with people. So it’s counterintuitive that nice guys don’t win every business race.

You probably feel drawn to doing business with nice guys. People you like.

And the cutthroats that will do anything to make a buck? You try to steer clear of them.

But nice guys tend to be terrible at saying “no” when it matters, and that leaves them little room to grow in the right directions.

Every man, no matter how talented, productive and intelligent, has a limited bandwidth. You can use your personal bandwidth to grow strongly in one direction—making you an expert—or to grow slightly in many directions—a jack of all trades.

As a businessman, which person are you willing to pay more? The expert or the jack of all trades?

The expert, of course!

But nice guys tend to accept any project thrown in their direction, rationalizing that having another skill in the toolbelt will make them more appealing to prospective clients, employers or business partners.

In reality, the more you can say “no” to things that don’t align with your highest skill, the better off you will be in the end.

In other words, your ability to say “no” directly impacts your ability to excel.

But nice guys find themselves saying “yes” to any project that comes their way, and following are a few of the reasons for that. These are some of the reasons nice guys might finish last in business.

  • You feel an obligation to say “yes.” You feel like “yes” is the only real answer you can give because of your position, your relationships or a situation. There’s always another answer.
  • You fear disappointing someone. You might feel like saying “no” will disappoint the asker. And make you less valuable to them. What a bunch of bull. People respect men who know when and how to say “no.” Being a “yes man” isn’t desirable.
  • You cave to social pressure. You said “no,” but someone appeals to your ego or to the desperate nature of a situation. The nice guy in you helps you backpedal on your initial response.
  • You like the challenge of pulling through for others. You’re a rescuer. You like to be the knight in shining armor swooping in to save a project, a colleague or a business in need.
  • Fear of missing out on direct or indirect opportunities. Even nice guys wonder what’s in it for them. So taking on a project that doesn’t align with your “zone of genius” may seem like a good idea in that it could lead to more, bigger opportunities. There will almost always be more opportunity in specialization than in diversification.

How to say “no” so you can win

So we’ve established that when nice guys finish last in business, it’s because they haven’t learned to say “no” nicely.

But that doesn’t make it any easier for a nice guy to say “no.”

That’s why I’m going to share with you how to do that.

It’s a simple framework.

  1. Show appreciation
  2. Explain why you have to say “no” (without laying out your entire workload – keep it simple)
  3. Suggest an alternative
  4. Don’t respond to follow-up flattery and change your mind

After my business partner Bill sold his last business, an international nonprofit asked him to become its leader. He was sincerely flattered, and was tempted to take it on. He identified with its mission and at that point even had the time to take it on since he’d just sold his business.

But he asked himself one question: What will I be missing out on if I do this? In discussions we’ve had since, we figured out that we never would have started The Lions Pride if he had taken that role. And this is our calling.

But even for a major opportunity like that, you can use this framework. For instance, if the person asking you were named Viv, you could say:

“Thanks Viv, it’s really an honor that you thought of me for this. I’m super tempted to take on this challenge, but I also know that I have to use my time right now to develop the best next steps for me and my family. Do you know Perry? I think he’d lead your nonprofit well and I can set you two up to talk if you’d like.”

See how this shows true care and concern without sounding harsh? It’s tactful and graceful.

You’re not saying “no”

Basically, following this formula you’re not even saying “no” to the person asking. You’ve conveyed the feeling of “no” without using that one harsh, hard-to-use word.

And you’ve done it in a service-minded way.

Because really, when you’re saying “no” to someone asking for your time, you’re saying “yes” to yourself and your most important relationships.

If someone ever flatters you to change your mind, you can even say that: “I’m not saying ‘no’ to you, I’m saying ‘yes’ to me.”

And that’s one place saying “yes” will more often be the right decision.

Nice guys who say “yes” too often aren’t nice enough to themselves. And if you’re a nice guy, you should be nice to yourself as much as anyone else.

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