271. Should I Say Yes?

Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan join us to discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.  Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes

  • Ansburg, P. I., Basham, M. E., & Gurung, R. A. (2022). Thriving in academia: Building a career at a teaching-focused institution. American Psychological Association.
  • Thriving in Adademia. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 252. August 31, 2022.
  • Webinar:  The Art of Saying No, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Monday Motivator – “Just Say No”, National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.
  • Five Ways to Say No, Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2014),Transcript.


Rebecca: Busy faculty and staff are known to get things done, resulting in additional requests to engage in service activities. In this episode, we discuss how and when to say no throughout your career trajectory.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guests today are Kristin Croyle and Kendra Cadogan. Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Kendra is the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and Interim Director of the James A. Triandiflou Institute for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Transformative Practice at SUNY Oswego. Welcome, Kendra and welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you, John.

Kendra: Thank you so much.

Rebecca: So today’s teas are:… Kendra, are you drinking tea?

Kendra: I’m not. I’m drinking a protein shake [LAUGHTER] if that counts.

Rebecca: I think that might be the first protein shake that we’ve had. [LAUGHTER] So that’s good. Usually we get coffee, diet Coke, etc. How about you, Kristin?

Kristin: I got a tea for Christmas, an early Christmas present. It’s turmeric chamomile, And it’s very tasty.

Rebecca: Oh, that sounds tasty.

Kendra: …sounds good.

John: And I’m drinking an Irish Breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have blue sapphire tea again,

Kristin: Oooh. It’s got the best name

John: …that’s getting repetitive.

Rebecca: I know. [LAUGHTER] But I only have like one more pot left. And then I’m gonna switch to something else. Because I’m running out. I think I have one pot left.

John: Maybe you can play a green sapphire or something?

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: So we’ve invited you both here today to discuss the challenges faced by those faculty and staff who made the mistake of being productive in some service role, and then continually get asked to do more. We often hear that expression, “if you’d like to have something done, ask someone who’s a busy person.” And we know both of you have experiences as volunteers to do service work, as well as in your current positions, asking other people to do some work to assist in your roles. Why do we end up with such an uneven division of service requests of faculty and staff?

Kristin: One thing I love about starting with this question, because we’re going to talk about some strategies that people can use to think about service and say no, but you didn’t ask that as the first question. What you asked was about the structure of the institution, and what makes the structure of higher ed create uneven service roles. So, without answering to start with, I’m just gonna say, I love that as an entry question, because it’s easy to talk about the difficulties people have saying no as an individual issue, but it’s an issue that people can develop individual strategies for. But it’s not an individual issue, it’s an institutional issue, it’s an academia issue, it’s a structural issue. So, good question. And I’m gonna start by saying that there is no good institutional tracking of service. I’m sure all of us on this podcast have asked people to serve. But it’s not like we’re looking at a list and saying, “Well, this person is already advising two student orgs and serving on six committees and doing all of these other things.” There’s no master list. So we can’t look and say, “Oh, it would be so much.” And, at the same time, I also realized that’s a total cop out answer, because, even though there’s no institutional lists, we also know, don’t we? Like I could ask this person who is chairing faculty assembly… you know that’s what she’s doing. I could ask this person that I’ve seen at the last 12 committee meetings that I went to, and that’s not at one committee that’s at 12 different ones. [LAUGHTER] So, on the one hand, there is no institutional tracking, but on the other hand, the frequent targets, we know who they are. So, why don’t keep asking the same people? What do you think, Kendra?

Kendra: I think that those are all great points, Kristin, and I totally agree. You mentioned the chair of the Faculty Senate, who happens to be a woman. And I think that segues into another trend that we see really well, which is that we often see women and minoritized faculty being asked to do things more frequently. I think some of that is related to just some antiquated stereotypes that we have about gender and ideas about human being nurturing, and all of those things, and maybe willing to please, or able to serve and roles that we might not traditionally ask male faculty and staff to serve in. But I think that some of it, particularly for women, and I guess for minoritized faculty, too, is about the pressures that women sometimes face in the workplace around their careers and around advancement and wanting to make sure that they’re always going above and beyond to prove themselves. And we never want to say no, because you don’t know how that will reflect on you. And you certainly don’t want to be seen as less capable or not a team player or not willing to take charge or take initiative. So all of those things in ways work against folks and I think make it easier for us to continuously burden certain people with a plethora of requests.

Rebecca: One of the things that you both highlighted a little bit is that the faculty and staff who are regularly involved, regularly volunteering, regularly providing service, become more visible in these spaces. So those are the people that you think of first because they are visible. There’s a lot of faculty and staff who may actually be great folks for particular things but they’re just not as visible as well. I’m not really sure how we raise the visibility of some of those folks too, but I think that is just something that does occur.

Kristin: And part of what you’re mentioning is also that service really is a skill, and that when people do certain things they get better and better at it. So if the Dean is looking for an interim chair from outside of the department, the list of people who has both the skill set and the temperament and proven leadership skills, that’s a shortlist; that’s a very short list. Certainly, as people serve in more challenging roles, they really do develop unique skill sets that make them more easily tapped in the future. But on the other side of it, in asking newer faculty and staff to serve, I don’t know what you do, Kindra, but I actually, in the college, I look at a list, like, here’s the entire list of faculty and staff in the college. And I look down the list to make sure that I’m not just thinking about the people that I have run into and talked to in the last few days, or that have served in a similar role in the past, so that I can think about and tap people who could potentially grow from a service opportunity. So it is both a skill set, but also an opportunity for a lot of different people.

Kendra: That’s a great strategy. Kristin. Typically I try to ask around, I ask for referrals, I ask for deans or the provost or whoever, faculty who maybe live and work in those spaces already to provide recommendations. “Hey, is there someone that you know who’s up and coming or who’s looking for more experience in this particular area that could benefit from me tapping them to do this thing?” [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: One thing we didn’t talk about specifically, is the desire to have diverse voices in many of our service opportunities, and how that is unduly burdensome for some faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great point. And I think that’s a big conversation. On one hand, of course, you want representation, representation does matter. Like we say that all the time, and I think that we really, really mean it. But then again, it’s also very easy to fall into the patterns of “these are the diverse faculty that I see or interact with regularly, or who are very active in these spaces, so I’m gonna keep tapping them for the same things.” I think part of the solution to that or a path toward a solution is to make sure that we are centering inclusivity and belonging in our institutional priorities, and really thinking about how we help others develop their DEI skill sets and elevate their DEI practice, so that they can step into those spaces and be impactful and provide leadership and guidance in the way that we heavily sometimes rely upon faculty and staff of color, in particular, a diverse faculty to provide. It’s kind of a long path toward a solution, but I think it’s one way of really beginning to eliminate that problem of constantly overburdening diverse faculty and staff with requests.

John: And part of the issue is the underrepresentation on college faculty and staff of the groups that we have been referring to… and those same faculty and staff, though, often have more demands on them from students, because while our student bodies have become much more diverse, the faculty and staff have not been, and many students will reach out to people from affinity groups that are again, often somewhat limited on many of our campuses, which puts additional burdens on those faculty and staff.

Kendra: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: And that service… that’s often invisible, it’s easy to count or say like, “oh, this committee, that committee,” but I think advisement and mentoring that takes a lot of time and energy, and it’s not as well documented. Clearly Kristin already [LAUGHTER] raised the flag that we don’t have a great way of tracking these things anyways, but I think that, in particular, is something hard to quantify, because it doesn’t look the same for everybody.

Kristin: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think that one of the difficulties with this is that the recipient of the service is the student, which makes it highly visible for students, and almost invisible for faculty colleagues. So if you’re advising a student organization that is really active, they may be doing amazing work, and the work that a faculty member is doing as that advisor may be the thing that makes the difference in retaining those students and mentoring them to successful careers, but their colleagues may not see any of it, because it’s happening directly with the students and their colleagues are not going to the student org meetings, because their student org meetings, not faculty organization meetings. So not only is it downplayed sometimes in tenure and promotion materials, their faculty colleagues don’t catch that it’s downplayed. If they were serving in Faculty Assembly or on the Gen Ed Committee, or the Curriculum Committee, their colleagues would say, “Wait, hey, didn’t you do all of this stuff that you didn’t talk about?” But it’s both not given as much credit as sometimes it deserves at some universities, but it also is sometimes literally not recognized because people didn’t see them do it.

Rebecca: So why do we say yes to so many things?

Kristin: Why do we? Rebecca, I feel like you should ans….. No, I’m kidding. You’re actually very good at this.

John: I’m actually asking because I need some advice here. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Kendra, why do you say yes?

Kendra: Oh, man, that’s a loaded question. [LAUGHTER] It’s hard to say because it’s hard to say no. It’s hard to say no sometimes. And when you feel like someone is coming to you, because there’s a need that you can fill, sometimes you can get carried away with this idea that you are the person who has to do the thing, because if you don’t do it, it can’t be done. And then there are some of the other things we’ve talked about: the pressures of our careers, wanting to be taken seriously, wanting to be credible, wanting to be able to advance. You can often feel like your path to advancement is going to be barred at some point. If you keep saying no.

Kristin: The number one reason that I say yes, is one that Kendra mentioned, it’s usually because the ask comes from people I care about in professional terms, colleagues that I respect who are doing good work. And if they say, “Can you help me with this good work?” I want to say yes to them. And they’re often asking about issues that I care about… colleagues that are doing good work on things that I think are really important… I want to say yes to that. But I also say yes, because I am interested in a lot of things. And if people say, “I’m going to work on this thing that you haven’t worked on,” sometimes that’ll be a yes, because I just want to learn about that new thing. And when I learn about new things, that is a type of personal growth for me and I get renewed from that. So saying “yes” sometimes also means that I get that personal growth boost. Or there have been times when the ask has been like “You’re the only one who can do this, can you please step up?” …and I know that faculty have that implied experience too, not always like the explicit, someone literally says, “You are the only one who can do this, can you please do this,” but sometimes it’s just implied. And it can be a strong implication like ‘In your small department, you are the only tenured faculty, how about you become chair?” So I do want to question… just push back a little bit. If you stick around in higher ed for longer than about 15 years, you’re going to start realizing there are ways to get the business done, it is almost impossible that you are truly the only way, almost… not 100%, but like 95%. Now, I don’t want anybody to think that they’re really not irreplaceable, because everybody, at least at SUNY-Oswego, I think, is irreplaceable. But do you really have to do that one thing you really don’t want to do? Isn’t there another way that the institution can find a way to get the work done? And if you think about your colleague who’s really good at saying “no,” you see how that works, that there is a way that if this really is going to push you beyond your limits, there’s a way… there’s a way.

John: So what are some good ways of saying no to those requests that push you a bit beyond your limit?

Rebecca: …or that just provide inequity?

Kendra: Well, I think it depends. One of the things that we didn’t really mention was that the flip side of always saying yes, you know, there the positive reasons that Kristin really just highlighted, but there are also some more practical reasons that aren’t always so positive, like tenure, or time spent as an institution. For newer faculty and staff, it can be really scary, or unclear even, about how much can I say “no” to? What is a directive and what is an option? And if you’re new, if you’re not, I think too a lot of times, maybe at even a public institution where you do have some backing of unions, the employment structures are a little more forgiving. In some cases, it can be really scary to say “no” as a new person, a new faculty member, a new staff member. So I think that there have to be strategies for someone tenured and who have been in a place for a long time can employ that will work really well for them, that might not work so well for someone who’s newer. And it’s important, I think, to maybe flush out what’s a good idea for someone who’s been here for a while and what’s the strategy that a newer person might employ to say no.

John: For new faculty who are struggling with all the other commitments they have to do to be successful and advancing towards tenure, what are some good strategies to say “no?”

Kristin: I think it’s a good question that speaks to learning academic culture. And even if you’ve been around a long time, you’re still learning the academic culture, because your role is always changing. It’s a strategy that an Associate Professor uses or a full professor or someone who has transitioned from faculty to staff, there are all kinds of culture change questions. How do you negotiate this new culture? And the first thing I would say is to be clear what you need to do for your job. And if that’s, “I need to make tenure, so I need to publish this much,” if that’s “I now am in a staff position and staff often have less flexibility in saying yes and no, and these are the outcomes that I need to achieve to keep my job.” So part of it is being absolutely clear. You can say yes to 50 things right now. But if you’re on tenure track, and you don’t get your publications, your master service is not going to pay off. So being very clear on what your job is. And if you don’t know, which is a real possibility sometimes, you develop your kind of committee of mentors. Who do you go to and say, “Hey, I got this really interesting request” or even like “I got a cold outreach from a publisher to write up my course as a textbook. I got a cold outreach from this person I don’t know on campus to fill a university wide-service role.”? You got to have somebody to ask So developing your committee of mentors, not one mentor, but your committee of mentors, because they’re all going to have a different view. And then you combine that with delay, especially like the sidewalk ask, you know what I’m talking about, right? Or like I caught you after this meeting, or I’m just going to do this quick ask. So the first answer is to delay. Say “that sounds like a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a day or two and look at my other commitments,” delay, then you go to your committee of mentors. And if you don’t literally have one, John, you had this great book for a new faculty reading group in the fall Thriving in Academia. And I think you also did a podcast, right?

John: We did, with all of the authors.

Kristin: So in Thriving in Academia, there’s a table, a little flowchart, a flowchart that says, with this service request, what do you think about first? And what do you think of next? So if you can’t go to your committee of mentors, you can go to these three authors, as your committee of mentors and check the flowchart. Does the flowchart say you should do it? Or does the flowchart say, Oh really, think hard about this one. This is a no. What would you add? Kendra?

Kendra: I’m just thinking about myself now. How do I usually say no? And now I’m wondering if I say no often enough? [LAUGHTER] Probably not sometimes. But when I do say no, on the rare occasion, what I try to do is also think about who I can point to, to the person asking me for whatever, to actually fulfill the request. So is there someone who’s better suited to complete this project or do this thing than I am? I think about resources. And I try to make sure that rather than just saying a flat no, and leaving someone hanging, I’m pointing them in the direction of someone who can help, someone who can fill the need and hopefully benefit from it, not just someone that I can shove the work off onto, but someone who can really fill the need, benefit from fulfilling that need, and it can be a mutually beneficial situation. I also think about just being mindful of self in those moments. So re-centering self care, we talk about self care all the time in higher ed, we write about it, we research about it, I think we’re actually really bad at it a lot of the times. You have to really center yourself. When someone is making a request, you have to think about yourself. What am I able to do? It’s like they always say on the plane, you have to put your oxygen mask on first, before you put someone else’s oxygen mask on or else both of you will be out of luck. So I think in those moments, you have to really be mindful about centering yourself and tuning in and knowing where you are: what your bandwidth is, what can you give, and is it something that you can do and still be healthy and still be whole and still be able to do all the other things that you’ve already signed up for, that you’re already responsible for? So I don’t know that those are necessarily strategies, per se, but they’re things to think about when you say no. Sometimes you just have to say no, very clearly and concisely, [LAUGHTER] you can’t do it.

Kristin: Kendra, do you have a script in mind when you say no? Like, do you have the words?

Kendra: That’s actually a really good question. I think when I do say “No,” it’s usually something very pleasant. Like, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that.” Sometimes I’ll literally just say, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the bandwidth, but here is someone who might help.” Or “here is another option,” maybe another way of accomplishing this task, another group of people who are already doing this work and can give you some additional assistance. So it’s usually like the nice thing that like the pleasant but clear, “No, I’m not able to do that.” And then the “but here’s how I can help you by sending you in this direction or sending you towards these resources.” That would probably be my script.

Kristin: And part of that is because I think your role is unique. And so when people are asking you, they’re really asking you. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: Yes.

Kristin: So being able to provide another alternative, or another way that you could contribute, is a really nice option. In other choices. There could be just “That sounds like a great opportunity, but right now, unfortunately, I don’t have the time. I look forward to seeing what the results are. I look forward to seeing the report from that committee.” And no, of course, you don’t always have to provide an explanation. You can just say, “No,” you don’t have to say “I’m too busy.” You can just say no. But perhaps that person is going to be someone you’re asking to serve in the future. So it can be nice to continue to develop the relationship even if you have to say no. Something that frequently serving people sometimes forget that they can do is also think about how much time this commitment is going to take and asking for that time back. So let’s say you’re in a small department and your colleague is injured and is out for half of the semester in the course that only you can double up on. So this is one of those where you’re almost irreplaceable, there really isn’t anybody else who can step in. And you know that if you’re injured in the future, you’d really like your colleague to step up. So there’s a little bit of a social contract where you want to say yes, but that’s a significant time commitment. So what are you going to lose from spending your time on that and how can you get it back in the future? So you could ask, if the area of your rub is really financial, you can ask for extra pay, and you probably should get extra pay either way, because it is extra work. But if your area of rub is research productivity, that you’ve been really trying to write, you can say, “Well, if I’m going to do this, then I need a course release the next semester” and negotiate for the thing that you are having to sacrifice to see if you can get it back in a different way. And that is not an unusual thing. So it wouldn’t be like the weirdest thing that anyone has ever asked for, even if you’ve never thought about it before, someone else has thought of that and asked for it before. So you can always ask, what is your trade off =and how can you trade that back? If you’re a junior faculty and your chair is asking you to do something that you really don’t think you have the time to do, but you’re a little concerned about the chair ask you can say these are the things I’m doing right now, w hat would you suggest I take off my plate? How would you suggest I reorganize this? I’d love to say yes to this, but right now I don’t have the time. How would you suggest that I prioritize so that I am ready for my next tenure review? So there are ways… there are ways. But it is good to have a script in mind because we can all say “no” when we’re actually not being asked to do anything, you could just make one up right now. But if you’re in a higher pressure situation where someone you care about their opinion is making an ask right at that moment, it can be hard to come up with an answer unless you already have one in mind. So “that’s a great opportunity. Let me think about it for a couple of days.” Go ahead, use that one, just go right ahead. Even if it’s me doing the ask, you can say it right back to me, I’ll be okay with that.

Rebecca: One strategy I’ve used too is, in that delaying tactic, is always asking for clarification: what the responsibility will be, what the time commitment will be, what the meeting schedule is, so that you actually have enough information to make an informed decision. Because often the ask doesn’t come with all that information.

Kristin: And you know what happens when you ask those questions, right? The person making the ask is like, “Oh, I don’t have answers to all those. We should have goals and a timeline.” … you know, good stuff.

Rebecca: Sometimes you really want to say yes to something because it just is very appealing for whatever reason. What are some strategies so that you can say yes? We’ve mentioned negotiating for time or other resources. But the other thing that I think about is you look at all the things on your plate, and see what are some things I could roll off of, if I want to roll on to something new? Or if I want to pursue something different? What can I get rid of or step away from? Are there strategies for being able to step away from some of the things that you were committed to before that we could think about in terms of strategies for ultimately saying yes, but saying no to something else? [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: One of the things that we didn’t necessarily mention before in the saying “no,” but that applies here is this idea of acting as a consultant. So if a great opportunity comes up, and you really want to say yes to it, but you have a whole bunch of other things that you’ve already committed to, it might be a great time to reevaluate those other things and determine what are the things that I really need to put the legwork into and be boots on the ground on? And what are the things that I can provide a perspective on or give some guidance on in a more passive way, that then frees me up to maybe actually do the heavy lift for this other opportunity? That’s really great that I really want to be involved in. So I think that’s one way to move yourself closer to a yes [LAUGHTER] and an offload of some of the other things that might be standing in the way of that “yes,” Kristin, if you have any thoughts?

Kristin: Yeah, and again, thinking about I say, a five year plan… some people actually have those. I’ve never had a five year plan. But I admire people who do. But I do have my idea of my career trajectory, what I find really rewarding and what I don’t. And when I’m offered a service opportunity that aligns to the things that I find really rewarding, that it is exciting and I’ll learn something new about, and be able to contribute about things that I value, I want to say yes, even if it’s really time consuming. So yes, I look at the combination of things that I’m doing, think about how they contribute to both the things that I value and what the institution has hired me to do, because I do have a job that I have to do. And there are always ways to rollback your commitment on some. Many service opportunities require only an intermittent time commitment, you got to really hit it hard for a couple days here and then you can back off for several months, and figuring out how to fit that together. And consult, consult, consult, ask other people, I actually used the flowchart myself in the book at one point a couple months ago saying, “Oh, this looks interesting. Should I do that?” My flowchart says no. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And the flowchart can’t possibly be wrong. [LAUGHTER]

John: Actually, the flowchart most often says no, because of concerns about faculty taking on too many responsibilities.

Kristin: Yes, because the first question in the flowchart is, “Do you have the time?” which leads you to “no” a lot of the time but it was also of low institutional value and not really important to me and not really important to anyone else, and I didn’t have the time and like “flowchart says, “no.” I was like, “well, probably right, [LAUGHTER] those are all good points that I should have been thinking more about.”

Kendra: Well, Kristin, I think to your point, too, about going back to your five-year plan and think about your career trajectory, and how well the things you’re involved in are serving you toward that end, it is absolutely okay to go back to previous commitments, and say “I had a wonderful time, this has been a great opportunity. I’ve learned a lot. but this doesn’t necessarily fit anymore in my larger plan. This might not be as helpful for me in my trajectory as it once was, and so I’m going to maybe end my involvement as of such and such a date.” Sometimes it helps to give folks a timeline on your end, clearing your plate for other things doesn’t mean that you have to immediately walk out the door on whatever else you had going on, right? …It’s probably not advisable, actually. But I can tell you that I’ve reached out to folks to ask them to serve on things or to participate in things that they’ve been participating on. And they’ve had really nice responses that are like “Kendra, I really appreciate this opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed the work that I’ve been doing, but I’ve taken on some new responsibilities that are more in line with some of my other interests or other needs or professional development, and so I won’t be able to participate in this anymore.” And I can’t be upset about it, it’s a lovely response. And I totally understand that folks want to develop, they have other interests, they need to be able to spend their time and spread it around sometimes and they’ve really been helpful to me in the time that they were able to engage in the thing that I needed them for. And I’m more than happy to say, “We’re going to miss you so much, you’ve been amazing, but I wish you the best of luck in this new thing that you’re really interested in. And let me know if I can be helpful to you.” Or let me know if these two different interests have any synergies or if there’s ever any way we can collaborate in the future. So it’s certainly okay to sometimes walk back from previous commitments very tactfully and very appropriately, but it can be done.

Rebecca: I think it’s also possible to say yes to just a part of something…

Kristin: Yeah.

Rebecca: …like, maybe the ask is like this big, like, it’s huge, but what they really want you for, or where you could provide the most value, is during a brainstorm session, or designing how something might be implemented, but not actually work on the implementation. So there’s a way to sometimes contribute without committing as much as the ask was originally.

John: …and defining a scope upfront.

Kristin: Yeah, that’s a great point. With all the searches that we do, I hear a lot from faculty about the incredible amount of time that goes into searches, and different ways that departments organize them that burden some people versus the others, but I think that’s a great example. If you can say, ”I’m gonna take candidates out to dinner,” which is a huge time commitment, but it’s very focused, it only happens during the visits, “I don’t have time to review all of the applicants and to serve on the committee in that sense, but I can take them all out to dinner,” there are trade offs that can work better for life in the way that your time is structured, that you can see that other people can’t see. So nobody’s going to suggest to you, how about you just do part of this, but they may be very open to that response.

Kendra: I would say in 9 times out of 10, someone’s asking you to do something and your response is, “Here’s the piece that I can do, I’m not able to provide assistance in these other areas,” that person is going to be more than happy with what you are able to contribute. So those are great points and great ways to be able to clear room to say yes.

John: What are some of the differences in the constraints of faculty and staff when they’re being asked to engage in service roles?

Kristin: I think the differences there are really baked into the differences in the roles, that faculty are expected to serve institutional priorities, but in some ways, almost work as independent contractors. It’s like ”here’s work to do, figure out how you’re going to get it all done in this amount of time, we’re going to come check on you in a year, see how you’re doing,” whereas staff are expected to stress institutional goals on a day-to-day basis. They work much tighter in teams, and their collaborative skills are usually much more highly valued. And because of that, if a faculty member says no, the expectation is well, that’s because they’re busy doing the other stuff that they’re supposed to do. We don’t even need to ask them what that is right now, because they’re hopefully writing. But if a staff member says no, in some ways, it’s weird. Staff say yes. Because so much of their work is being asked, being asked to lead, being asked to run a program, being asked to show up at 11 o’clock at night to serve a midnight breakfast… being asked, and the expected answer in many cases is yes. So being able to constrain the role and say no is often more fraught for a staff member. Kendra, what has been your experience working with staff and helping coach them to shape their time as much as they can?

Kendra: Yeah, that’s a great way to articulate the differences between faculty and staff, I think. I don’t know if faculty have performance programs.

Kristin: …not like that, not like staff do.

Kendra: Yes, exactly. Staff have sometimes very prescriptive performance programs that literally layout, area by area, theme by theme, what all of the duties and expectations are going to be. And then of course, there’s the other duties as assigned. So it can be very difficult for a staff member to say no, and it can also be very confusing, I think, in some cases for staff to understand “What are the things that I can potentially say ‘no’ to? What are the things I’m given latitude on to exercise autonomy and say, ‘No, I’m not interested in this,’ versus what are the things that are more imperative.’” When working with staff, what I try to do is be very clear with the folks I work with, with my colleagues, about what are the expectations and the needs versus the options and opportunities. So I tried to be really collaborative with colleagues and say, “Hey, there’s an opportunity that’s coming up,” or “there’s a need that needs to be filled, you have expertise you have, whatever the reason, I see you as a great fit for this.” Now, the conversation can then go one of two ways. One way, which is what I try to always have it be is, “Please let me know what you think. What are your thoughts about this opportunity? Are you interested? Is this something that you would want to do?” And that gives the staff member agency to think about what’s on the table and to make a decision about whether or not they want to be involved. The other option is to say, “This is something that needs to be done. you’re the person strategically for the job, so I really need your help in completing this.” And that’s less of an option, but at least it gives folks and understanding of like, okay, this is not necessarily optional. This is something that I need to do to be a strategic and fully collaborative member of this team. So sometimes it can be a little tricky. But I typically find that if I’m really transparent with my colleagues, and let them know, “Hey, here’s what I’m thinking about. Here’s why this makes sense. And this is either something that I’m offering to you that you have agency to say yes or no about, or this is something that is part of our strategic plan that I really need you to be responsible for. And here’s what you being responsible for it looks like.” Folks seem to deal with that really well. I think it’s much harder for staff when there aren’t clear expectations and when they’re also not given any input in decision making, when you’re just “voluntold.” …not even really voluntoldl, like literally just, “this is what you’re going to be doing.” It’s always better to include folks in the decisions that you’re making, and to provide as many opportunities for options as possible.

Kristin: Absolutely, you can see the differences in other ways too, like if a faculty member is asked to serve, usually no one is asked except the faculty member, the department chair isn’t asked, the dean isn’t asked, unless it’s someone like, “Can you think of anybody?” and then you suggest them, but usually it’s straight to the faculty member and it’s up to them to figure out whether or not they want to say no. Oftentimes, when staff are asked to serve in different roles, their supervisor is asked first, could you release them for this? Would it be okay with you if they do this? And sometimes faculty who move into administrative roles will start to experience that difference in culture in subtle ways and may not understand, like, what is happening around them? How come when I’m in this committee meeting, only the faculty say no to something. the staff say yes, or how come when I approached this person for help, I got a little cranky email from their supervisor. So it’s good to know that there’s a difference and also to respect that the two kind of different cultures, that both have a role and their pros and cons, and to know what you’re stepping into when you’re asking people to do things.

Rebecca: I think this highlights a little bit of what you were mentioning before, Kristin, about knowing what your role is or what your position is. Because sometimes staff would also have the opportunity to ask a clarifying question like, “How does this fit into my performance plan?” or “How does this help us meet the goals or initiatives that my division or my group is meant to be achieving?”

Kristin: Absolutely.

Rebecca: Because if there’s not alignment there, then that’s a pretty easy “no.”

Kristin: Absolutely. Do either of you two have strategies that have worked for you?

John: I have never been very good at these decisions. Rebecca?

John: I say no, sometimes.

Kristin: How do you do it?

Rebecca: I’ve worked really hard to make sure, and it took a long time to do this, but to align my scholarship and research and creative practice with service and my institutional responsibilities. And there’s pretty good alignment with those things at this time. And when something seems like it’s not in alignment, that’s when I have a pretty clear “no.” When it does seem aligned, that’s when I have a harder time saying “no.”

Kristin: And you don’t want to.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kristin: That’s a great strategy. And the people I have known and worked with that say no the best, they have developed over time clear guidelines, very much like that. I worked with someone who was really good. This is something I could never do. I could never say no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I don’t think I’ve ever said no to a student who wanted to work with me in research. I have occasionally matched them to someone who’s a better match. That’s different. But he was very good at saying no to students who wanted to work with him in research, which was like my Achilles heel, but he just had very clear guidelines: “I only work with students who are at this point, X, Y and Z,” and they were not unreasonable things. And then he would say yes to those students. And it opened up time for him to really mentor them. And I’ve been lucky to work with people like you and him. You have a way that you approach your career that you have thought about. This is where my limit is, so I can say yes to these students who want to work with me and really work with them. But I can say yes to this giant time commitment, because I know it contributes to my research and to my service,

Rebecca: I think that it can help to also just have colleagues around you who say “no.”

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: …and seek out that camaraderie. [LAUGHTER]

Kendra: I think that’s a great point. And it goes back to something Kristin said about when you’re that faculty member, you don’t understand the faculty staff. dynamic and you reach out to a staff member to ask for help and get a cranky letter or cranky email back from their supervisor. That does happen. But the reality is, I think we need to, again, be more supportive, particularly of newer colleagues. I’m thinking of new staff very specifically, and I’m thinking about this from the perspective of a supervisor. I think it’s really important when we’re mentoring new staff, and helping them develop professionally and think about what the next steps are for them, we also need to provide some additional support to them in helping them to say no, helping them to really prioritize and think about what serves them and what doesn’t. And one of the things that I’ve said to folks that I’ve worked with in the past is they’ll come to me and say, “Well, Kendra, someone’s asking me to do this, or this or that, and I’m not really sure that I want to do it, or I just don’t know.” So like, okay, let’s talk about how this fits into your professional trajectory. Does it makes sense for you, does it make sense in the work that you’re doing? And if the conclusion that we come to is really no, this doesn’t serve you, then by all means, feel free, if you don’t feel comfortable saying to this person, for whatever reason, no, if you’re too new to feel comfortable doing that, then by all means, I’ll be happy to reply as your supervisor and say, “This is not going to work, this doesn’t fit into whatever,” I’ll just say no for you. Or you can always feel free to say, I spoke with my supervisor, she doesn’t think it’s a great time for this, I don’t have the bandwidth. Feel free to throw me under the bus. Because I do think that part of what I have to help folks learn is, of course, how to advocate for themselves and how to be full adult professionals, but it’s also to be supportive, and to help them to kind of get their legs under them. And sometimes part of that is helping them say no.

Kristin: Awesome,

John: We always end with the question: “What’s next?”

Rebecca: Please tell us how you’re going to redo higher ed [LAUGHTER] and make this better?

Kristin: That would be awesome. And you know, the funny thing about that question is that it’s always a problem that we don’t keep track of service better. But the other side of me is like, “Oh my gosh, what a pain that would be, a huge amount of work for very little payoff.” Is there a better way to do it? So I don’t have an answer on what’s next for supporting service, except to be more proactive in my request to say this is what the commitment is, let’s talk about your current commitments and how we can shape what you’re doing to support both what you want to get done and what I’d really like to ask you to do, [LAUGHTER] not just the single ask, yeah, not just like, here’s the one thing, but instead to ask in a more comprehensive way.

Kendra: And I also don’t have any solutions for fixing higher ed, unfortunately, at this time. [LAUGHTER] But I do think that we can also make sure to just model the behaviors that we’re talking about, again, just being mindful of our own personal practices and making sure that we’re not just talking about saying no, but that we’re actually doing it for ourselves and so that the folks that we work with and work for can see what this looks like and be mindful for themselves too, about how they need to think and work through this space. I think that’s one small thing we can do.

Rebecca: Well, thank you for joining us.

Kristin: Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.

Kendra: It’s been fabulous. Thank you so much for having me.

Kristin: It’s great talking to both of you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.