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Not surprisingly, the most common question asked during the midcareer faculty workshops that we conduct for the Association for the Study of Higher Education and the American Educational Research Association is “How do I learn how to say no?” Our response often surprises the attendees. We tell them that instead of saying no, they need to reframe that question into “How do I learn to say yes?” This doesn’t mean saying yes to everything but instead learning to say yes to the things that matter most to you.

Thinking about learning to say yes might sound like a downright impossible task to many faculty members, as we all are experiencing some of the most challenging of times in higher education. With increasing responsibilities and decreasing human and financial resources, most of the faculty members we come across are feeling overwhelmed, burned out and just plain stuck in a continuous cycle of work overload. These feelings are consistent across the many interactions we have with midcareer faculty throughout our research and in our workshops.

Midcareer faculty, at all institutional types, are especially vulnerable to rising demands as they find themselves in leadership or academic administrative roles with limited training and, frankly, often limited interest other than feelings of obligation. A common response is to engage in the “misery Olympics,” in the words of one of our past study participants whose story informed our recent co-edited volume focused on midcareer faculty, whereby you consistently highlight your inequitable workload to concerned administrators with strapped budgets or to colleagues in similar “miserable” situations or, worst of all, to leaders who truly don’t care.

The misery Olympics is a particularly fruitless exercise, and you will probably gain little traction in improving your workload through it. Instead, we advocate for a more strategic approach that becomes crucial in the midcareer stage: leading with your yeses. That approach has had far better outcomes among our midcareer faculty research participants and workshop attendees.

Here are three steps for helping you to lead with your yeses—all gleaned from more than 550 of our participants and attendees, who represent a range of career stages, institutional contexts and demographic diversity.

Uncover Your Yeses

It seems like a simple statement, but you really cannot lead with your yeses until you know what they are. “But how,” you ask, “am I supposed to figure out my yeses when I am so busy doing all these nos?” Our research demonstrates that self-reflection on the best use of your time and talent is a necessary ingredient for advocating for your own career vitality. Ask yourself:

  • What do I enjoy doing at work?
  • What do I want my contribution to be?
  • What responsibilities align my talent, my interests and the needs of my community/institution?
  • What brings me the most joy?

In time, you will probably develop broad categories that can guide your yeses.

As an example, Linda, one STEM participant whom we worked with two years ago in a midcareer workshop, arrives a day early at her biannual academic conferences and reflects on her yeses. She leaves with a list of “yes” categories that will guide her current and future work: 1) developing student research skills, 2) fostering STEM-related community engagement and 3) encouraging shared governance around faculty development.

Act on Your Yeses

Knowing what your yeses are is important, but it’s just the first step. Now you must actively follow up on the self-reflective exercise that produced your yes categories. Organizational psychologists and professors Justin Berg, Jane Dutton and Amy Wrzesniewski write about “task crafting,” a strategy that advocates for removing and adding career responsibilities in ways that align with your interests and contributions. Borrowing from one of our workshop participants’ metaphors, we think of faculty careers as dance cards, a practice of reserving dance time for specific partners during the mid-20th century. If you proactively fill up your dance card with your preferred dance partners (your yeses), then you do not have room for unwanted dance partners (your nos). The same goes for career tasks. If you intentionally fill up your workload with career responsibilities that match your talent, passion and intended contribution, then you have a rationale for declining other tasks.

Returning to the case of Linda, she intentionally and actively pursues opportunities to teach research classes, partner with a local K-12 school on STEM curriculum initiatives and serve on numerous committees determining sabbaticals and implementing campuswide professional growth workshops. Those passions align with Linda’s teaching, research and service requirements, thereby positively contributing to her institution’s mission. When asked to do things beyond these categories, she points to her full dance card as evidence of her contributions that benefit the department and/or institution.

Reframe the Onus of Responsibility

Berg and colleagues also write about “cognitive crafting,” or the act of reframing your mind-set. We find cognitive crafting a particularly salient need, especially among women faculty and faculty members of color who are disproportionately asked to perform service or administrative tasks—thereby contributing invisible labor that does not count toward career advancement. Across our participants’ narratives, one challenge to saying no is the notion that the onus of responsibility is on their shoulders. They ask themselves, “Who else will do it?” or they assume, “I have to do it because I’m good at [fill in the blank].” Or they fear, “I won’t get tenure or promotion if I don’t do this.” If you are upholding an equitable workload of contributions to your institution’s mission and meeting the requirements of your department and institution for tenure and promotion, we then encourage you to confront this psychological burden of carrying the onus of responsibility.

In the case of Linda, for instance, she realized by midcareer that she had assumed an unfair workload in comparison to many of her men colleagues. Through time diaries and data dashboards of her contributions to the department and institution’s mission, Linda now has the information needed to convince her leaders and colleagues and—most important—herself that she is responsible for her yeses and not for everyone else’s nos.

It is important to note that we fully appreciate that faculty members’ sense of agency to pursue these three strategies can be impacted by institutional type, departmental culture and/or racial/gender identity—with faculty of color and women faculty being particularly vulnerable in their career advancement. The extant literature, as well as numerous of our faculty participants, highlights the use of data dashboards (visualizations of workload contribution—see work by KerryAnn O’Meara and colleagues), institutional agents (senior colleagues serving as advocates—see work by Estella Bensimon and colleagues) and a thorough understanding of quantitative and qualitative metrics for tenure and promotion, as useful approaches to navigating potential negative outcomes of applying these strategies.

Through these three strategies—uncovering your yeses, acting on your yeses and reframing the onus of responsibility—we have witnessed numerous midcareer faculty members navigate their careers and workloads in ways that elevate their yeses and enhance their vitality. Solely focusing on strategies to say no will fall flat if you do not reflect on aligning your talent and passions with your career aims and your institution’s mission, develop an intentional plan for a dance card primarily filled with your yeses, and confidently reframe the onus of responsibility. Such tools and strategies will help you re-envision your next midcareer phase in truly meaningful ways.

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