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.









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