How to Say No

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Early in my career, I struggled to say no. I was asked to serve on committee after committee, to evaluate fistfuls of manuscripts and grants, and to perform dozens of other tasks, large and small. I said yes willy-nilly — often because of genuine interest, but other times out of a sense of guilt or obligation, and sometimes out of fear of reprisal if I refused.

But as I advanced in my career, the requests snowballed. Agreeing to do all of them — or even half of them — became impossible. I needed to figure out when to say no, and how to do it artfully. Five principles have helped me learn what to say, and what not to say.

Volunteer someone else — strategically. Often when people ask you to do something, they don’t actually need you to do it. They just need the task done. Even more urgently, they need to complete the task of obtaining a commitment from someone to do it. At the moment of the “ask,” they likely do not view you as the holder of unique talents or the only person who could possibly do this work. More likely, they see you as a potential checked box on their own to-do list.

In such cases, you may encounter surprisingly little resistance if you politely decline while nominating a substitute. The requester will likely thank you and move on to the person you suggest. And if you respond promptly, you’ll be appreciated all the more.

Be strategic in naming your replacement(s). If the proposed gig is desirable, suggest someone who could use a career boost. Pay special attention to issues of gender, race, and position: Consider passing a good opportunity on to a person of color, a person without a tenure-track job, or someone else who faces documented disadvantages in academe. If the proposed labor is undesirable, nominate someone competent but underutilized. Be sure only to suggest someone you respect and trust to complete the task reasonably well.

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