Grit, according to Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) is a positive non-cognitive trait based on an individual's passion for a particular long-term goal or end state, coupled with a powerful motivation to achieve their set objective. Through perseverance, gritty individuals overcome and achieve goals despite obstacles or challenges. Plainly stated, grit distinguishes individuals who can accomplish more than the average person. This definition of grit is individually focused, but what if we applied this same idea to higher education as an industry? What area would stand out as the grittiest on campus? My faculty friends may not agree with me, and maybe I’m bias because it’s the world I live in, but in my opinion, there is no grittier function in higher education than career services. Tasked with the near impossible, Career Services is called upon to increase enrollments; fuel the advancement and fundraising engine; and successfully place all graduates (before - or at the very least - by graduation) into high paying, prestigious companies - (at a minimum of 97% placement, thank you very much). We are asked to supply all current students with multiple, top-notch experiential learning gigs; be present at all university functions and student affairs programming; foster good will and partnerships with academics in the hopes of showcasing we actually do add value to the curriculum (really, we do) ... all the while producing stellar data-driven reporting for trustees, external constituents, and of course, parents. And I didn’t even mention performing the actual job we are tasked with, which is helping students and alumni find meaningful careers and collaborating with our corporate partners in ways that encourage a stronger workforce.
Just saying that makes me tired! Are you tired?
Career centers across the country have had varying degrees of success meeting the increasing needs of campus and constituent. We collaborate, we innovate, we improvise, we re-tool, we re-brand, and we re-imagine. We fuel and refuel the proverbial message that a college degree is worth the cost of tuition because at the end of the yellow brick road we are the wizard waiting behind the curtain to plug all new graduates into the best jobs money can buy.
Guaranteed. Now that’s perseverance! But only the gritty survive, yet not unscathed. Having worked in a career services function for a better part of 15 years, I have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, our Centers are being tasked with (in collaboration or solo) producing outcomes that aren't actually achievable. Yet, we accept these responsibilities. We kick start the tenacity, slap on the resilience, hunker down and produce. We happily yes ourselves to death, hit the grit button and (most of the time) yield impressive results. In many cases, our grit is misdirected. I believe we should say no more often.
The Struggles and Benefits of Saying No
Career services is a helping industry with deep roots in psychology and human development. For many in our profession, in a way, saying no feels like a form of aggression. We say yes because we know our efforts, however misaligned, have students’ best interests at heart. We say yes because we want to be seen as a team player, not perceived as hard to get along with. Refusing to help does not come naturally and saying no can create anxious, guilty feelings - affecting output, reputation and peace of mind.
Unfortunately, we overestimate the need to say yes and underestimate the importance of saying no.
Saying no can be an asset to your department, your team, and yourself! Even the grittiest of individuals need to prioritize and focus their efforts in a healthy, productive way. Lanaj, Johnson and Wang (2016) found that responding to many help requests was particularly problematic for people who value helping others and who help on a regular basis. Helping is so ingrained in the career service function, we end up devoting much of our time and cognitive resources to saying yes, yet responding to some help requests is a double-edged sword.
Helping drains cognitive and emotional resources, leaving the helper tired and depleted (Lanaj, 2016).
Saying yes sometimes comes at a high price: Mediocrity!
“Grit is not just having resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitment that you remain loyal to” – Angela Duckworth
Why Gritty Individuals Should Say NO
For the helper, saying yes has both positive and negative consequences. Helping typically makes us feel good about our work; it gives us energy; and increases life satisfaction. All great benefits! At the same time, helping can interfere with our own (or our teams) progress. Spreading time and resources too thin does the following:
Risks depleting your team’s inner resources
Opens us up for making mistakes
Runs us the risk of job burnout
Derails our mission
Gritty people are at greater risk for saying yes because the positive effects of helping are more pronounced for people who enjoy challenging themselves. Gritty people are passionate about what they do and are interested in how to perform what they do better. They strive to showcase their work as important…that they are making a difference in the work they do. Gritty people are willing to put in whatever hours are needed to get the job done – it get better at what they do, and they will find a way to overcome adversity. These qualities can lead us right into the yes trap if we’re not careful.
For all my gritty colleagues out there, here are a few tips on how to say no:
Take time to consider the request. Hasty responses ignite system 1 thinking, which is automatic, instinctive, and emotional, and relies on mental shortcuts (Beshears & Gino, 2015). System 1 thinking serves us well in some instances, such as in a crisis (think firefighter), but can sometimes lead us astray. People who make hasty decisions run the risk of overlooking important details. Before committing, ask yourself: “Is this an opportunity that contributes to reaching our strategic goals? Is this request going to derail or delay a more impactful initiative?” Don’t respond to the request until you’ve had time to think though the pros and cons.
Weigh the consequences of saying no. Recognize there are going to be times when - even if you want to - no isn’t going to be an option. Maybe you’re caught in a political dilemma or the long-term benefits of saying yes are great enough that suffering in the short term is worth it (or necessary). When saying no is feasible, educate yourself on the possible ramifications beforehand so you’re not caught off guard. In most cases, acceptable reasons for saying no are lack of time, derailment of strategic priorities, or adequate or lacking the expertise to get the job done. Essentially, saying yes would impact your output and thus the team or organization could be negatively impacted.
Weigh the consequences of saying yes. Most people underestimate the amount of time it takes to complete a task, overlooking important details or ignoring warning signs that could delay project finish. Even though your gut is telling you the request isn’t the right move for you, your team, or your client, your brain is saying “It’s not a huge commitment, we can handle it.” And you may be able to handle it. But before you say yes to another project or responsibility, make an impact list. Keep the communication lines open so your team feels included, and if possible, elicit their support in brainstorming ways to reorganize responsibilities or workload so the act of saying yes is supported by all.
Lose the guilt. There are two reasons guilt has nothing to do with saying no. First, unnecessary guilt wastes a lot of mental energy, which takes away from productivity. Second, protecting your precious time doesn’t warrant guilt. Quite the opposite. Guilt is an emotion reserved for when you do something wrong. Saying no might create a little extra work for the person you’re declining because now they have to ask someone else or otherwise rethink, but it falls well short of hurtful.
Provide an alternative. Where possible, don’t leave your colleague without options. Helping brainstorm alternatives or suggesting alternative resources is, in itself, being helpful. The request asked of you might not be doable in its entirety; however, you may be able to offer indirect support by contributing to other areas of the initiative or offering to facilitate a connection with an area expert who would be a more suitable replacement. These tactics are indicative of gritty individuals, who never want to give up on possibility.
Ditch the cyber let down. Although it is much harder to let someone down in person, bad news delivered in writing can be misinterpreted. No matter how uncomfortable it may feel, the most polite, professional way to decline is in person.
Save the excuses. We all know that one person who we can never get a pin down for a straight answer. After you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided saying no is the best course of action, own it. Some people are averse to confrontation, and since saying no is seen as a form of aggression, will avoid this two-letter word like a plague. Not giving a straight answer may seem like you are being nice, but if can also offer false hope and doesn’t allow the person to find alternative support. When you say no definitively and with tact, your colleague has a better chance of seeking other means of getting the work done.
Ask for advice. Depending on who is making the request, it might be appropriate to seek advice in re-prioritizing your task list and explore the possibility of dropping another task to fulfill the current request. This is often the case when a supervisor is making a request and the opportunity to pass on the request seems unlikely. Asking for advice communicates you respect the other person and value their judgement, and it also lets them know you are committed to getting the work done, but you’re currently operating at your maximum potential.
Be a leader. Too often we have so many competing priorities, and in the moment, they all seem equally important. Being a leader means there are times you need to say no. Doing so with a business mindset, communicates you are capable of prioritizing workload impact. Leaders commit to staying the course of their strategic plan; ease the workload burden on their team whenever possible; and remaining focused on their customers’ needs.
"It’s only by saying ‘NO’ that you can concentrate on the things that are really important,” Steve Jobs.
The Role of Vision
Gritty individuals don’t give up. If our responsibility as career service professionals is to help move the mission of the university forward in the best interest of our clients, saying seems almost inevitable. However, saying yes to everything means you really have time for nothing. No one person, no one team can do it all. The busier you are, the more chaotic your days will be, and what’s more, you’ll likely not meet all your committed obligations.
In sum, providing help is without doubt a critical behavior in every workplace, and at the core of the career service function. It is important; however, to remember that it comes with a cost. What saying yes to everything really means is that you’re not setting priorities. You’re not making a serious commitment (not very gritty of you!), and most importantly, you’re not being conscious about your life, your team’s life, or your client’s life.
My challenge is that you get gritty about saying no. Set and continuously revisit your priorities for the year; communicate and get your team on board; and commit to operating within these priorities – no matter what. Use your team to hold you and each other accountable for staying the course. You’ll finish the year with a slate of accomplishments that you and your team feel good about, and truly benefit your clients.
Take a risk, and remember, ‘no’ is the new gritty.
Dr. Heather Maietta is an award-winning educator, author, speaker and coach, and President of Career In Progress. She has coached hundreds of career professionals in higher education, workforce development, talent management, k-12, and private practice to rethink career literacy and support. Heather is a National Association of Colleges and Employers Coaching Faculty member, a Career Development Facilitator trainer, and a National Career Development Association Leadership Academy participant. She lives in the Greater Boston area. Connect with heather on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.