The Value of Saying No: An Exercise in Reframing — Donna Ellis

Crossed hands As an academic support unit, we are in the business of helping others.  But it goes beyond simply service – we help instructors to help themselves.  The reach and scope of our services can feel quite large since teaching and learning are so foundational to the university, and we receive numerous requests for our assistance.  Our staff members’ interests and ideas for projects are also quite broad.  However, sometimes we have to say no to requests we receive or ideas we generate.  Is this ever a good idea?

The word “no” sounds so definitive and final – not very fitting or appropriate for a support unit.  I remember being told once that anyone in a service role simply could not say no to a client request.  That word simply should be removed from our vocabulary if we wanted to be successful.  I understand how saying no sounds unresponsive and even uncooperative, but is this the only way to interpret this response?  I don’t think so.

Travis Bradberry’s recent blog posting for the Huffington Post on habits to improve your life includes the advice to “say no”.  He writes, “saying no to a new commitment honors your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfill them”.  So, saying no to one request is, in essence, saying yes to something else and vice versa.  In the business literature, this decision-making behaviour of choosing one action over another is called “strategy”.  As Maister (2006) indicates, “strategy is deciding whose business you are going to turn away” (p.1).  That sounds pretty radical.  And yet the rationale behind strategic decisions makes sense:  “no operation can be good at everything simultaneously” (p.1) and “the broader the group of clients to which you try to appeal, or the wider the range of services you try to provide, the less customized your operation can be to each segment within that group” (p.2).  You can’t be all things to all people all the time.

Bishop (1999) provides another reason why it’s important to be strategic and say no:  employee morale.  She recounts the errors she made in building an executive search firm.  One example was taking on work for which they were ill-prepared.  The result was exhausted and confused employees who spent too much time doing work that was not a good fit for them or their organization.  Eventually she learned she should better define the business she was in as well as the business she was not in.  But in the process, she learned that she had staff who believed their business was simply to make all clients happy.  As a result, they were trying to do everything for everyone, and they were burning out.

How do these ideas relate to the work of CTE?  We have a strategic plan that includes our ongoing core activities and our strategic priorities for a three-year timeframe.  These two elements help to define the scope of our practice and areas of particular emphasis.  As part of the self-study for our external review, we have been revising our strategic priorities based on a variety of inputs, including our recent instructor needs survey, meetings with the Faculty Deans, and current trends from the government and our professional associations.  We will look to our new strategic priorities to provide guidance on how and where to focus our future efforts.

This all sounds straightforward, and yet I find it hard to leave opportunities behind.  There are so many interesting new things to do!  But the threat of burned-out staff is a real reminder of the importance of keeping our focus.  As we do our mid-year check-ins on our individual performance goals this fall, I will look for help from all CTE staff members to remove (or at least defer for now) project ideas that are on the fringes of our scope, that might be better done by another person or unit, or that no longer fit our priorities.  Saying no is not obstructionist in these cases: it’s empowering.  I look forward to the value that our clients and our staff will gain when we say no in order to make strategic choices.


Bishop, S. (1999). The strategic power of saying no. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Bradberry, T. (2017, March 18). 10 habits that will dramatically improve your life. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from 

Maister, D. (2006). Strategy means saying “no”. Retrieved April 17, 2017, from

Photo by Hasin Hader. Used by permission under a Creative Commons license.

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Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.

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