Why it’s hard for us to say no (and yes)

Posted 23 October 2015 by Lisa Meloncon

Previously, I posted about how to look at some of the decisions that you may be faced with, and weighing the ramifications of the yes or no on your overall career. It is always a helpful reminder to frame decisions by saying yes to those things that our institution rewards. The things you say yes to for your own personal satisfaction and reward need to follow from that.

In talking to lots of people about mentoring and the ways they make decisions, the one theme that keeps coming up time and time again is that you have to really get to know yourself and what you want out of this career and just as importantly, it’s helpful to start to parse through why it is that you feel you can’t say to no to say things. In other words, it’s no so much about learning to say “no,” but rather, learning more about ourselves in why we feel we can’t say no.

First and foremost, you have to know what you want out of this career, and I’ll be the first to admit that it changes and I will be the first to admit that sometimes answering that question is really hard. But you have to a sense of what it is you want. For example, I do not mind administration, but I would prefer to do small administration (e.g., running a program, running a center, managing a discrete project with a start and end date). I know without a doubt I will not do administration greater than this. I don’t want to (it’s too much like the project management I used to do so someone please remind me of this the second it ever comes up in conversation J) Also, I have learned that I enjoy—and am much better at—teaching certain kinds of courses as opposed to other kinds of courses. I also choose service opportunities in large part based on the decision matrix I posted previously.  This sort of self-awareness has really helped in guiding the decisions that I make.

Now, when I write it all down like that it looks so nice and clean and easy. I don’t want to lend false hope because it’s not easy or clean. It’s messy and hard trying to figure yourself out, and I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that many of us gravitated to this job because of the flexibility and diversity of it—because we didn’t want to settle on something. (Yes, I do see how those things don’t necessarily go together!). But, I am encouraging you to give it some thought to figure out what you want.

The second part of this—why we feel we can’t say no—is just as complex. In this, too, I went to the collective mind to find out what some of the biggest reasons were that folks struggled with saying no. Here’s a list of what they told me with some initial thoughts about how to think through them.

Fear of missing out
I can pretty much say with certainty that any opportunity that presents itself will come around again. Every grant or fellowship will have another cycle; every research collaboration will still be there (albeit in maybe a different form); every partnership will still be available (if they were really interested and sincere); every …the list can go on and on. I understand what this feels like, and I get how there is the feeling in your head and your body (sometimes a true physiological reaction) about how X is the “perfect fit.” But if the timing isn’t right, it isn’t a perfect fit, and it’s important that you consider all the factors before you answer. Saying “yes” because you have the fear of missing out isn’t reason enough to say “yes.” In most cases, it’s reason enough to say “no.” The point is to try and recognize this part of the feeling and try to separate it out so this emotional reaction isn’t driving the decision.

Being seen uncooperative or not a team player or as selfish or not caring

We all want to fit into our respective departments/programs and be seen as someone that is a team player or someone that is advancing the common goals. Closely related to team player is the slightly different perspective where one wants to make sure that they aren’t being seen as being selfish or not caring. This latter view is more about how you see yourself in relation to your colleagues and their perception of you.

In each of these cases, we can sometimes over-compensate and feel as though we have to say “yes” to everything. Please don’t let this happen to you. You do not have to sit on every committee. You do not need to do everything a colleague asks. You do not have to volunteer to do the social things or the advising things or the department representative things or any of the other “one-off” or “it won’t take much time” tasks that are asked of you in hopes you are seen as the “team Player” and “caring about the department.” Because all of those things that “won’t take much time” actually do and every extra committee that you sit on (when you really don’t need to) means that something else in your life has to give. There are only 24 hours in the day.

Read your workload and tenure and promotion documents. Talk to trusted colleagues in your department. Think through what it is you want and then say yes and no based rather than these other things.

Feeling that you have to say yes

There are occasions we say “yes” to things—from teaching schedules that aren’t in our best interests to service roles to even research collaborations—because we feel that we have to based on some ill-defined perception or understanding that there is no other choice.

Typically, though, there is another choice. If you ever feel this way, please immediately stop and ask someone for her perspective. Feeling that you have no other choice is not a good place to be and if the decision is made hastily can in the words of Bartok (a character from a Disney movie), “nothing good can come of this!”

Overcompensating for (perceived) lack of __________

Sometimes we get to the point that we end saying “yes” to things to make up for what we perceive as our lack of [fill in the blank]. The internal logic goes that if you’re not producing in one way [let’s say research] then you need to make up for it in another or if you’re not sitting on as many committees as person X, then you need to add something else to make up for it.

Typically, this occurs when we’re not seeing our own work through an objective lens and/or we’re being too hard on ourselves. Over-production is definitely a problem and so is this notion that we have to be busy all the time. Both of these things can lead us to believing that we’re not doing enough. Try to be objective about your work and again, reach out to ask for trusted advice on the accepted levels in your department. Use your annual evaluations as a way to gauge where you can potentially cut back or to even out what you need to be doing. In other words, let the facts drive things rather than your perceptions.

Gendered roles

Several people that I talked to about these issues brought up gendered roles and more specifically those around being a parent. In this I feel the least qualified to comment.

But, I can say comfortably that all of these points play out differently and painfully when they are viewed and enacted through specific gender roles and how others perceive those gender roles. All of that plays into how many women make and feel they have to make decisions. One woman explained it to me that she felt she had to say “yes” to one particularly onerous committee because she could never make another committee’s meeting time because it conflicted when she picked her daughter up from school. I have no doubt this sort of situation plays out a lot. In this you have to find a local advocate that has navigated the situation to provide useful and helpful advice. If no such advocate exists, reach out to the network in #womeninTC to find those with similar experiences to get information and practices so that you can make informed decisions based on local situations.


Moving forward

Much like the previous post in thinking through how best to make decisions, this post is hopefully one that will help you think through some of the things that may be behind why you feel you have to make certain decisions.

And remember, too, that often it’s not about just saying no or yes. It could be about saying not right now or maybe later or ask so and so instead.

It’s about figuring out the HOW to answer requests and the when to answer them that is important.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or finding yourself saying “yes” more often than you think you should because of these or related issues, reach out to someone to talk it through. There are no easy answers to any of these. But in talking with others about their experiences and practices, hopefully, you can understand your own motivations better and develop strategies that work for you and your career.

So sorry this ran on for sooooo long. But, hopefully, it will give you some things to think about in terms of what may be behind some of your decision making.

Happy mid-terms and remember to be certain that you’re taking care of yourself!






Thinking Through When to Say Yes and When To Say No

8 August 2015 by Lisa Meloncon

I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle about women needing to say no. (damn thing is behind the paywall: sorry about that. But email me and I can get you a copy)

It’s problematic on many levels (particularly the gendered notion that happy and no are equated and some other things, but I don’t want to get bogged down in that at the moment), but what made me pause and actually asked a question about it on twitter was that it started (in a sentence) to explicate the idea of trade offs.

Trade offs. Pros and cons. Discernment (thanks Marvelous_M). Costs and benefits. Risk and Reward. Return on investment of time and energy. Yes and No.

We hear a lot about trying to protect our time or to use our time wisely. Women, especially, hear a lot about learning how to say no, especially considering there is research that points to the fact women do more service and spend more time on other things outside of research (not that research is the end all be all of our jobs)(citations here).

So the question becomes then how to make decisions about where to spend our time. How do you decide if an opportunity is one that will bring the reward you want it to bring at whatever particular time you are in your career? In a less clunky sentence, how do women in academia make decisions based on their lives?

And this issue of how to decide when to say no and when to say yes and what it all means directly intersects with conversations about the “busy badge” (which has to stop and a post will be posted on that shortly) and having and enjoying life outside of our jobs.

I’ve always been concerned with the how. Why? Is often times an easier question to answer, but the How? Now that’s a tricky question. The most pressing reason it’s tricky is that how you approach decision-making varies tremendously based on where you are in your career and more importantly, on what you want out of your career. Not to mention, your own personality. For example, I’m old and tenured and have a very good idea of who I am as a scholar, academic, and a person. I didn’t know that when I was in grad school. It’s even different for two associates at similar institutions based on their career goals. The point is it’s all variable. Well, that’s no surprise, is it?!

So then how do you go about working toward the how of the decision making process? I hesitate to call it anything specific like a heuristic or checklist or what have you. But we have to start somewhere. Let’s just think of it as types of decisions.

Passion Decisions

We all have them. They are teaching or service or community based or research projects that will linger. But these projects no matter what are the things that inspire us, that spark our passion, and consistently remind us why we love this job. They aren’t something that you’re specifically counting on to move your career forward. You just do them for the pure pleasure of the personal satisfaction that you receive.

No matter the voice in your own head or that of the trusted colleague or that of the respected mentor, you always find yourself saying yes.

And it’s ok. It is.

But (and you knew it was coming), depending on your circumstance, it’s likely that you should only do one of these at a time, and you have to ensure that you’re making a realistic work plan so you can do the passion project while also doing those other things you need to do.

Believe it or not, #womeninTC is my passion project. I accepted the invitation to become part of the steering committee because I had been doing lots of mentoring sort of work at my institution and in the field, and I loved the idea that we could make issues important to women (and even men) more visible. It’s grown into something remarkable (if I may be so bold to say it out loud) and I’m honored to be a part of it. (and right now, I’m figuring out where it goes in my big decision making matrix as I look forward with my own life!)

Strategic decisions.

These are the ones that you make deliberately and specifically because of the value they bring to what you want out of your career. This is the most nebulous part of the formula because here it really, really, really matters what YOU NEED to succeed in your career. Think of these as tenure or promotion decisions.

And no, you do not have to say yes to every one of them. Just like you don’t have to say no to every one of them. The key is making strategic decisions.

This could mean that you take on doing an innovative teaching project like team teaching or piloting a new technology in the classroom. This could mean merging teaching and service through a unique service learning project that directly relates to your class and brings visibility to your program. This could mean accepting an opportunity that provides you data for an article-length manuscript. This could mean, well, so many things.

Collegial decisions.

Sometimes we need to make decisions because it’s the right thing to do. Right in this usage means that by making this decision we make our immediate colleagues happier, which can end making us happier (cause who doesn’t want to work with happy people!).

One area where we are always told to say “no” is in doing too much service. Sitting on that extra committee is the prime example of this type of decision. Here’s an example. I sit on a university level committee about technology. I am not at all interested in this committee and it is a bane of my existence. It meets every other week at 8:00am (and those of you who really know me recognize the humor in the 8:00am). It rarely makes any decisions. It is the epitome of sub-committee hell. I could drone on about it so I’ll get to the point. Because my program must have technology in our labs (think Adobe Creative Suite) I sit on this committee to know what’s going on and to be prepared to act and/or intervene about decisions that may effect my program. This makes my colleagues happy and it alleviates some of our collective stress on how to maintain our labs.

Now this is kind of a mundane example, but I’m hopeful you can see the idea I’m talking about.

Student-centered decisions.

These decisions come in two shapes and sizes. Those that directly effect students and those that indirectly effect students.

Directly effecting students is something like agreeing to take on extra advisees because there was a surge in enrollment no one expected and someone needs to talk to them the first two weeks of class and there’s no way anyone can step in on short notice. Indirectly directly students is something like the college level curricula committee that you sit on so you can keep on eye on any decisions that may effect your program.

In any case, many of us are faced with these sorts of student decisions and you need to consider (again) what the trade offs are.

Final thoughts

These aren’t the only categories, but when I was thinking through this post and talking to folks about these issues, ideas and concepts seemed to coalesce around these four categories. Absolutely, let us know if you have others.

I cannot stress enough that anytime you’re faced with making a decision you need to make it while thinking through what it is you want and need from the job and how those wants and needs align to those official documents that institutional direct our jobs.

The next post will address some of the common reasons that we feel we cannot say no-even when we want to. It’s important to talk about these issues and discuss some of the underlying issues that seem to make us—and women in particular—hesitate to say no.

As we’re all starting to gear up for the fall term when lots of new opportunities may present themselves, I encourage you to make decisions by thinking through the trade offs and what you really, really want and need.

The next post will follow-up on this one and will try to work through why it’s hard for us to say no and why we feel we have to say yes.









Making Hard Decisions

originally posted 16 July 2015 by Lisa Meloncon

#WomeninTC will proudly be accepting the Diana award from SIGDOC tomorrow and giving a keynote in the morning. If you’re there, be certain to attend and if you’re not, be on the lookout for the proceedings paper.

But, that’s not really why I’m writing today. I’m writing to talk about making hard decisions. Did I plan on being with my friends, colleagues, and fellow members of the steering committee tomorrow? Yes. But, I’m writing this from home in Northern Kentucky USA after making the hard decision that it wasn’t in my best interest at this moment in time to make the trip. Why was it a hard decision? Because not only was I supposed to part of the presentation tomorrow morning, I am also President of CPTSC  and I missed helped facilitating the round table we hosted between SIGDOC and ProComm (the annual conference for IEEE PCS).

So I had responsibilities. But, I just couldn’t do it. Everyone will face this decision at some point in their career, most likely more than one point in their career. It’s life and life changes, and as you know, conferences are planned months and years in advance. (Organizers understand this. So be professional and courteous when you back out. A long detailed rationale as to why is not necessary.)

But, right at this minute, reading tweets from the conference, I feel a little but like a failure for shirking those responsibilities. Well, that’s what the irrational part of my brain is saying. The other part of my brain has to acknowledge that—for all sorts of reasons—there was just no way this conference trip could happen. Thus, a decision had to be made. It was hard. I will continue to have doubts about it. I will likely try to find ways to “make up” for missing it in other ways. All of these things are human nature. It was, however, the right decision for me.

In making hard decisions, we acknowledge that there is a hierarchy in our life and in that hierarchy, you simply can’t do everything and be everywhere—even if you had committed to going. That hierarchy I would argue means putting you first. The “you” I refer to here is the material, embodied person with feelings and frailties and other aspects to your life.

I know that graduate students and young faculty members (and heck, even some of us oldsters, too! ) you feel that you have to go to everything. I am here to say that you don’t. You can be selective and strategic about choosing the conferences or workshops or symposia that you attend. Those decisions should be made based on who you feel your community is (who does your research speak to) and what type of conferences, etc., are recognized and valued by your institution (for tenure, promotion, and merit decisions) and those two factors need to be balanced against what else is going on in your life at the moment and your own mental and physical health.

We don’t talk enough about taking care of ourselves and finding the seemingly elusive work/life balance. That’s one of the things that #womeninTC is all about: Talking out loud about how to do our jobs, enjoy those jobs, and still have and enjoy a life outside of jobs; Talking out loud about our mental, emotional, and physical health and how our jobs affect/effect those things; talking about the struggles and successes and the hard decisions that often have to be made.

Know that when the moment comes to make the hard decision, you’re certainly not the first and you’re definitely not alone.

So for those of you in Ireland, be certain to have a pint for me!