Saying ‘no’

Demands and expectations placed upon us all at some point to take on more responsibility or extra projects exists. I haven’t yet come across someone that this hasn’t happened to, and it affect everyone and at all grades or levels of seniority from academics, managers, administrators, technologists or designers. Juggling many projects and tasks can often lead to a landscape where saying “yes” becomes the default response. However, the true power and perhaps the most underrated skill lie in saying “no”.

In academia, there’s a pervasive culture of saying “yes”. Yes to new initiatives, yes to taking on extra responsibilities, yes to more of the same. While this can be seen or described as a development opportunity, it also runs the risk of spreading individuals too thin, leading to diminished effectiveness or, worse, burnout.

For instance, a learning designer might be asked to develop multiple new online courses simultaneously, each requiring extensive research, collaboration with subject matter experts and the creation of engaging and purposeful content. By saying yes to these requests, the designer may find themselves rushing through conflicting tasks, resulting in sub-standard courses that do not meet educational standards or engage students effectively. While saying yes to these opportunities can seem like, or is positioned as a path to career advancement, it often leads to exhaustion and a decline in the quality of the output.

Saying “no” is not about rejecting collaboration, declining development or shirking responsibilities. It’s about making strategic choices that align with your values, goals, and the best interests of our students and institutions.

By saying no to tasks or projects that do not align with your primary objectives, you can devote your energy and resources to what truly matters. This concentrated effort results in a high(er)-quality learning experience for students, which is ultimately more valuable than multiple mediocre courses.

Educators and learning designers are at risk of burnout due to the high demands of their roles. Saying “no” helps maintain a sustainable workload, allowing for a healthier work-life balance and greater job satisfaction. By not taking on every request (unless it’s an instruction, in which case you may not have the luxury of saying “no”), you create opportunities for colleagues to step up and contribute. This fosters a more collaborative environment where everyone has the chance to grow and develop their skills.

With fewer distractions, you have more mental space to innovate and create. This can lead to the development of more effective learning strategies, engaging course content, and improved student outcomes.

Practical tips for saying “no”

  • Clearly define your professional goals and priorities. This clarity will help you evaluate which opportunities align with your objectives and which do not.
  • Establish and communicate your boundaries with colleagues and managers. Be transparent about your capacity and the quality standards you aim to uphold.
  • Ask clarifying questions about priorities and urgencies; if this new request is non-negotiable then what support is available on your other projects to ensure they are not negatively affected?
  • When you say “no”, provide alternatives or suggest other colleagues who might be able to take on the task. This shows that you are still supportive and collaborative, even if you can’t personally take on more work.
  • Saying “no” can be uncomfortable, especially in a collaborative environment. Practice assertive communication, and remember that declining a task is a professional decision, not a personal rejection.
  • After saying “no”, reflect on the outcome. Did it allow you to focus more effectively on your priorities? Use these reflections to guide future decisions and refine your ability to set boundaries.

The power of saying “no” is a critical skill for those who work as part of a dynamic team or organisation. It allows you to maintain the quality and integrity of your work, preserve your wellbeing, and ultimately provide better support and education to the students. By making strategic choices about where to invest your time and energy, you can create a more sustainable and effective educational environment.

Embrace the power of no, and watch how it transforms your professional journey for the better.

Photo by Rob Wicks on Unsplash