Do you struggle to prioritize and set boundaries? Do you have so much to do that some of the most important things are not getting the time and attention they need? Has someone advised that you need to get better at saying no? Are you wondering how the hell you do that without becoming a Selfish Bastard?
As I was talking to clients recently, I realized that this advice — Get better at saying no — suggests that the colleagues who aren’t struggling and who are finding the time to focus on their own priorities are good at saying no. In my experience this is not necessarily the case.
Saying no is really difficult.
It requires you to have considerable confidence in your own judgement of what’s more important. Some of the important things you do involve other people in a very immediate way — teaching, advising, committee service, peer reviewing manuscripts, etc. Some of the important things you do appear to be much more personal and the outcomes are not very visible and may not occur for many years (e.g. research and writing).
You may also be very aware of the power differences between colleagues. In addition to valuing the work you are being asked to do, you don’t want to be responsible for even more of that work being dumped on lower status colleagues who have less power to turn it down. Saying no can feel like you are making your life easier at the expense of someone else.
Avoiding being asked
A lot of the people who are doing less of the work that is overwhelming you didn’t actually say no to that work. They aren’t any better at saying no than you are. What they did was engineer things so that they were never asked.
Advice someone I know was given by his supervisor when he got his first academic job: Do every administrative task late and with at least one mistake.
When I was still an academic, I once had a conversation with a colleague from another department in which he admitted that his department had implicitly agreed to allocate teaching so one particular colleague never taught undergraduates because it was more trouble than it was worth.
Think about it, if you need something done are there people in your department you would rather not ask? Is that because you know they will not do a good job, drag their feet, or otherwise make it more trouble than it’s worth?
The fancy word for this is strategic incompetence. It happens in all kinds of areas. As a researcher I did some work on divisions of household labour and a colleague doing similar work said she’d once had a man tell her in an interview that his wife did all the laundry because he couldn’t work the washing machine. He had a job in high tech but somehow the washing machine was beyond him.
If you insist on being competent, you will get asked more often.
Furthermore, because you are competent, if you say no, you are more likely to have someone press you to change your mind. Insisting on being competent is a good thing. I do not recommend developing strategic incompetence. I point it out because it demonstrates that the problem isn’t you and your ability to say no.
As you develop the confidence necessary to set boundaries and have them respected, keep in mind that you are being asked because you are perceived as competent. If you say yes, the person asking is getting much more than just someone to fill this role. They are getting someone competent to fill this role. They are saving a lot of time and effort that would otherwise be required to manage the strategic incompetence of another person. At the very least, do not let them minimize the added value you bring.
I will be writing more about this topic. I often send this to one of my newsletters before publishing them on the website. Sign up for newsletters.