David D. Perlmutter

Professor and Dean at Texas Tech University

Admin 101: How Good Leaders Say No

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A friend of mine has a teenage daughter who, whenever he starts the usual lecture about cleaning her room, makes an X mark in the air, exclaims “Unsubscribe!,” and walks away. As a dean, I wouldn’t advise my fellow administrators to use her technique in declining faculty requests.

There are days when it’s tempting. But the reality is: How you say no as a campus leader can be as important as the decision itself.

Rejecting a plan or a project is one of the most common administrative actions, and a minefield of personal and political risk. Behind every entreaty is a person (or a group of people) who — depending on the way you handle the transaction — may take offense. The challenge is how to say no while maintaining a long-term positive relationship, a bond of trust, an atmosphere of professionalism, a feeling of mutual respect, and a sense of fairness.

How to achieve such goals is the focus of this month’s column in the Admin 101 series on the good, bad, and ugly practices of higher-education leadership. The stakes seem particularly high now, amid Covid-19, with greater budget pressures, personal stress, and cultural tensions. All of which occasions an examination of the art of no for 2020 and beyond.

Let the data say it for you. One of the dilemmas you face as an administrator is dealing with requests that haven’t been thought through. Your job is to lay out the consequences, trade-offs, and potential ripple effects so that the petitioners can make a more-informed choice. As an administrator, you have more access to information and other resources, not to mention more experience in making decisions, than do most professors, which means you can offer perspectives that they might not have considered.

In some cases you won’t have to say no — it will become self-evident from the data and analysis you share why you can’t OK an idea.

Keep in mind: Every request is also an interpersonal exchange of information, so be open to learning new facts and insights from the requesters. They might change your mind about what is possible.

Look for an alternate pathway to yes. The opposite dilemma can emerge when someone with a request has concluded there is only one method of achieving it. In essence, such petitioners are making two demands: first, that you give them what they want, and second, that you give it to them in the exact way they want it. Handle such cases by disaggregating method from outcome.

This scenario commonly occurs in budgeting. For example, a professor might say, “We need X amount to upgrade lab equipment; we can draw from the Y fund.” As an administrator you know the need is real, but you also know that the Y fund is tapped out. Maybe you can say no to the method and find another pathway to say yes to the request.

Even in tough times, leaders should try to find ways to get good things done via creative but possibly circuitous routes. The catch: If you find a solution, don’t be pompous about that; portray it as a case of teamwork in which both parties contributed to a positive outcome.

Don’t say no if somebody above you will say yes. The American ideal has always been that nobody is above the law. Likewise in academe, where the checks and balances of our system mean that most administrative decisions by a chair, a dean, a provost, or even a president can be appealed to the next level up. In practice, of course, we don’t have the chaos of constantly overturned decisions because of operating procedures, budget realities, codified rules, state and federal laws, and many other written and unwritten traditions.

Part of your due diligence in handling a petitioner’s request is to hesitate — “Let me look into it and get back to you” — in order to consider whether the administrators above your rank would give the same answer. (You don’t want to go running to your boss about everything, just the controversial stuff.)

That approach is prudent for more and better reasons than just covering your back and not looking foolish. Consulting those above you may result in good news: Someone higher up may find one of those creative, alternative pathways to get to yes that you hadn’t thought of. Moreover, the act of checking can be an effective lubricant for trust between you and those to whom you report. It's also crucial to another skill that every faculty member and administrator should learn, “Managing Up.” Here, too, don’t forget to give credit where it’s due for the solution.

Don’t be mysterious about your reasons. Despite what you might infer from reading social media, blogs, forums, and subreddit sites, most academics are reasonable and accommodating. Tensions often emerge because professors, by nature, resist anything that seems opaque or vague, and are justifiably frustrated when given scant information on a vital question.

Budgets are a timely (and perennial) example. At some of my previous university employers, the budget seemed like a black box wrapped within another black box, so that you really could not tell how money was spent or why funding allocations were made. I’m fortunate now to be at an institution where almost anyone can gain access to information about university finances and budgets, and that helps a lot in explaining why I can’t green-light someone’s pet project or proposal.

Most of the people you deal with, as an administrator, are smart. They may not know the nuances of budget codes or legal requirements, but they can detect cant and sense defensiveness. They can tell when your no has little foundation.

Being clear and truthful is not just a tactic. It’s the only option if you don’t want your decisions to be seen as arbitrary or unwarranted. If you explain the logic of why and how you declined a request, it is more acceptable (if not readily accepted) to that majority of reasonable people.

Set aside your academic passions and be dispassionate. In higher education, we hire faculty members who are passionate about their area of research and study. We want chairs to be passionate advocates for their departments. And we want the IT-support staff to be passionate about IT.

But all of those groups want administrators to make decisions out of fairness — not out of passion, favoritism, or prejudice. The impression you make in saying no is almost as important as the decision itself. Besides being clear and open about your reasons, you must demonstrate that the process did not have a fixed outcome.

In hiring decisions, for example, offering the job to someone means turning down many other candidates, and potentially alienating their supporters. It’s a mistake to appear partial to a particular candidate or even to a particular kind of candidate outside of the agreed-upon qualifications. Don’t pick an early favorite, don’t cheer on a colleague’s choice, don’t be seen as putting your thumb on the scale of any one CV or person. Play it straight, and let the process move forward fairly.

Show you care in tone and manner. An old insight suggests that some people make friends by the way they say no and others make enemies by the way they say yes. Without question these are trying times for higher education. We’re all a little impatient or testy. However, no one likes to feel brushed off — that something they cared enough to make a plea for was not given due consideration.

Campus leaders, as a rule, don’t get much slack. Lose your cool as an assistant professor, and most people will forget about it after a week or two. Blow your top as a dean, and that anecdote may follow you for a decade (or a career, if it’s particularly colorful). As an administrator you are expected to treat people decently, no matter the circumstances. That’s just part of the job.

So when you are brusque, or when your body language and mannerisms exude a lack of sympathy for the person as well as the proposal, you lose trust and confidence. No question is inane, and no request is ridiculous, to those who put it forward, so act accordingly. Give people your full attention, and make them feel valued. Even when you oppose the idea, show you care about the person.

If you find it hard to say no, don’t become an administrator. However, you can learn to say no without undercutting what other people are trying to achieve. Communicating that people and ideas matter, even in tight fiscal times, is essential to the success of your leadership and to the equilibrium of the constituencies you serve. Long-term trust is always more important than any short-term gain.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University and an executive coach for hospitals and universities. He writes about faculty and administrative career issues for The Chronicle. His 2010 book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press.

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