Navigating Self-Directed Work: Learning to Say No

Navigating Self-Directed Work: Learning to Say No

Readers of the blog were recently asked to recommend topics to explore. This topic is from Angela, who asked to read more about how to navigate self-directed work. Thank you Angela and I hope this post gives some insight to you and others! This is the second in a two-part series. The first part explores how three lessons I learned learning to self-direct my own work environment. This post will focus on the dynamics with a supervisor and how to self-advocate within this environment.

Advocating for This Type of Environment

Self-directed work environments are different than a traditional office environment. In a traditional office environment, staff report directly to a supervisor that manages the output and assigns work based on job descriptions and workloads. In a self-directed work environment, a team approach is adopted and work is managed by consensus. Meetings drive the productivity, as work is assigned based on skills and the outcomes expected from the work.

In my experience, student affairs adopts a self-directed approach in its team-centered approach. So much of our work overlaps and is tied to the same institutional goals, teamwork is one of the ways we accomplish these goals. But the assignment of the work can often still fall within traditional work environments and people at the meetings represent their department rather than their individual skills.

Self-directed work requires more meetings to check-in, so know this before asking for this type of environment!

I have worked in student affairs departments in various sized institutions. In my experience, smaller institutions rely on more self-directed work environments, as there are fewer staff with specialized skills holding positions. At larger institutions, departments are able to specialize their staff and work is assigned by role than by team.

If you believe this type of environment would work best for you, consider using your professional network to gather some information. Are there local colleges that have opted this type of environment? Position descriptions adapted with HR? New skills required, or new online project management software, in order to facilitate team-oriented work?

Learn to Say No to Others

In my previous post, I explored many things I had to learn to do to work in a self-directed environment.

One skill that helped me was learning how to say no. As a first-generation professional, I didn’t see this skill practiced at home by my family. Working in service industry or agricultural work, the work hierarchy and outcomes were established early and were on-going. So I had to learn that saying no was not only necessary for my self-preservation but also for my sanity. Even if sometimes it meant saying no to myself.

When I was the director of a multi-functional student involvement office, we were often hiring and replacing staff. Depending on the time of the year, departmental leadership distributed the remaining work to the rest of the staff. If it was over the summer, the work was usually less. But the start of semester doing extra work? Well those were usually harder to cover.

In this office, we had adopted a hybrid self-directed approach to our work. Many of our main departmental functions were developed by committee, but we had a great deal of work to accomplish on our own.

One year I recall that we had to cover all the opening activities for two months among the rest of the work I had with my own position. And I remember going into my supervisor’s office, having him ask me to do something before the end of the day and breaking down in tears. I had zero energy left and just couldn’t figure out where to find any extra energy to do the work.

So yeah, this is pretty much how I looked during that conversation about doing more.

So I said, “No.”

I clearly remember looking at my supervisor and saying, “No.”

Instead, I asked my supervisor to look at my to-do list and to find something that could realistically be moved off the list.

While I worked in a self-directed role, I understood my responsibility for extra departmental work. But that didn’t mean I sacrificed my sanity to take on more work. Even with the years of experience I had, I was always trying to impress my boss and co-workers with my ability to look like I could do it all.

The reality was more that I didn’t want to disappoint myself and hang on to what looked like failure as much as others. What I’ve come to understand is that most of my peers were adept at telling their supervisors no. And in fact were better at bringing up work loads and expectations during one-on-one meetings.

This shocked me! I thought that everyone had been taught to do more and prove our unending energy! But that wasn’t the case at all. Since that time, I have coached new professionals to speak up early and often. Remind your supervisors of your realistic boundaries and if you can’t take items off the to-do list, ask them to do it.

Learn to Say No To Yourself

As a first generation professional, I have had to unlearn many of the expectations I had about myself. I thought I always had to say yes to everything. I thought I had to volunteer ideas for every project. And I believed that if I wanted to advance in my career, I had to show I could manage multiple and competing priorities.

I was always worried about my career. But I always put what I needed last, and that didn’t help me advance either.

I was only partially right about these expectations. Sure I had to show agreement, but not at the cost of my own resources.

I should volunteer my skills. But I wasn’t required to stretch my time longer than I could physically or emotionally manage.

I should be able to demonstrate juggling multiple projects. But I shouldn’t lose track of what I was being evaluated on.

I believe that when I began to say no, I began to show others that my boundaries mattered. And that I was just as interested in finding a solution that worked with the resources we had, including my time.

Making a Self-Directed Work Environment Work for You

I have often seen new professionals post online how challenging it can be working in a hierarchy-heavy organization. But the trade-off is that you also need to prioritize your own work, deliver results with little on-going feedback, and likely sit through countless meetings. It’s not an easy way to work on a day-to-day basis. If you need a more steady, reliable work day, then a more traditional office may suit you.

But if you like the challenges of shifting resources, juggling multiple tasks, and creating within a team, then a self-directed role might work for you. But if you do, make sure that your work is being valued as a team-player rather than an individual producing work solely. In a hybrid environment, you can get the best of both worlds and might want to start there first.

Skill Building Development for the New and Mid-Level Career Professional

I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years. I have helped them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

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