09 May 2007

How to Say No and Other Handy Academic Talents

I have been thinking about how to say no.

My closest colleagues in the department have teased me about how I have learned to say no. When I was first hired into my current department, I had an administrative job that involved handling comments, questions, and complaints from students who didn't want to follow the general requirements for first-year writing matters. Anyone who complained about anything that first semester usually got what they asked for, but gradually, I learned, by watching my colleagues, how to investigate a situation, how to step back, think about what's best for the student and institution, look at the principles involved, and how to be both flexible, fair, and committed to principles.

I have learned to say no on my own account with much more difficulty. When Curious Girl came home, I was on sabbatical. Nine months later, when I went back to my regular assignments, Politica took a semester of family leave. CG had two mornings of daycare, and I took one day a week with her. I have continued that practice ever since (and am having my own version of kindergarten angst: I love my mama days, and I will miss them). One of my colleagues, himself a former chair, told me that it was important to take two half days during the work week to myself. So I figured I'd keep my mama days while department chairing (since the first year sets expectations for my availability).

While I'm willing to tell the internet about Mama Days, and I have certainly told my friends on campus about them, I have been cautious about telling strict colleagues about Mama Days. I never wanted to say to someone convening a meeting of the Mathematical Mushroom Committee that I couldn't come on Tuesday because I was home with my daughter. I would just say, "Tuesday doesn't work for me," and whether people assumed I was researching at home, teaching, or whatnot, I didn't care. I felt that protected my professional credibility. But the thing is, I liked the freedom it gave me. I generally don't schedule meetings after 3:00 (so I can pick up CG), and I keep at least one day a week free for CG. And I like that I've learned to say no. It's made me more able to keep blocks of time unscheduled for my own writing, and to make appointments that are reasonably convenient for me. I'm still quite accessible, but I won't schedule a meeting with a single individual if that's my only campus commitment; I no longer feel obliged to work my own schedule into a pretzel in order to help others do their work.

All of which is to say, I'm a big fan of "No, I can't do that then." And I encourage junior faculty to learn to say no, and to learn to say, "Let me think about that and get back to you," as well. That gives them time to check things with me or another colleague if they're trying to decide whether the cost of "yes" is too high. I think people should manage their own time.

But (you knew there was a but, right?).....I'm getting troubled by the ways in which some people say no, so I'm trying to work out the rhetoric of no. As department chair, I need to ask people to do things quite frequently, and I find big differences among the following (realistic-yet-fictional) sorts of no:
  • Sorry, no, I can't do that.
  • I'd love to come but we've had X commitment on the calendar for months now and I can't change it.
  • No, I can't do that because I'll be at a conference.
  • No, because I need to X, Y, Z (where X,Y,Z are things I am also doing, like prepping classes, reading papers, or revising a paper)
That list isn't quite conveying what I want it to, which perhaps means I'm making up this problem. But some people say no in ways that seem reasonable; some people say no in ways that bug me. It bugs me, in particular, when the explanation for no is a chronicle of all the ways in which someone is Very Busy, and those ways are all pretty ordinary. I tend to interpret that--perhaps unfairly--as someone saying "this unimportant thing you are asking me to do is not as important as the Very Important Things I am doing." And that bugs me. Say no, simply, but surely it's not necessary to inadvertently dis the person who's doing the asking. I'm a busy person myself, and I think a lot about managing everyone's work load.

Am I oversensitive? Perhaps. I'm curious what the rhetoric of no looks like in other workplaces. I tend to like the simple no.

This is one of the issues I've been thinking about blogging for a while. Another is leadership, a topic about which Tenured Radical has a fabulously smart post today.

Apologies for the slightly disjointed style of this post: it's end of semester chaos here, and I'm gearing up for five or six promotion and/or tenure cases, so I'm even more chaotic than usual. I have a birthday post half-written, and really, most of anything I"m working on right now feels only half-done. Without the structure of my fours, the posting suffers a bit.


elswhere said...

I've been thinking about this lately myself; sometimes it seems like the less explanation the no-sayer gives, the better. "That won't work for me" or "I have a previous commitment" is so much easier to hear than "I have a million things to do." Because, doesn't everyone?

At my job, I depend a lot on volunteers. Now, these people (all women, mostly moms of small kids) are giving their time *voluntarily* as the name implies, so part of me feels like I should be grateful that they show up at all. On the other hand, if they ditch me at the last minute, the library program (and often their child's class) suffers. And when they run in just before class and say "Oh, I'm so sorry, but I just have so many things I have to get done today!" I get resentful: hey, me too! And one of the things I have to do is teach this class, and now I have to do it without any help!

Hmm. I guess this touched a nerve.

What Now? said...

I salute you for being good at saying "no," which is something I'm still learning. (But I'm determined to say it, even if I'm not comfortable with it, in my new job; as you say, the first year sets up expectations for following years.)

On the other hand -- in my experience there are some people who have mastered the art of "no" to such an extent that they make life difficult for everyone else and don't do their share of the work. I was in a department with a couple of such folks, who thus managed to have every department meeting at their convenience and in some cases the great inconvenience of other members, and who also managed to get out of most of the shared work of departmental administration.

So this is something I struggle with a great deal. I mostly think that they were able to say "no" so blithely and frequently because the rest of us were overfunctioning and picking up the slack, and so if the rest of us had said "no" more consistently, maybe the system would have balanced out. Or maybe nothing would have gotten done at all. Hard to know.

susan said...

It is complicated--as chair, I have been trying to nudge some colleagues who have been, arguably, less engaged with the work of the campus to pick up and do their share. Some people are lazy and it is difficult to change them; others are simply unsure what to do. And I have seen departments become truly dysfunctional in the ways that What Now experienced.

It's busy competition that gets to me, or the sense that everything someone else has to do is so much more important than the task I'm trying to organize.

I also think-and here's where some of the leadership comes in, leadership that has to be built into the organization as well as deployed by those in actual leadership positions-that we should separate the issues involved in how to learn to say no from those around how to make an organization work. The problem I see with some of What Now's colleagues is not that they learned to say no, but that they have a disregard for what it means to work in a functional institution.

I'd like to think one can do both.

Magpie said...

I'm not good at saying no - I avoid conflict.

But (to change the subject), I love that you have "mama days" and that you're able to. I get cross-eyed looks if I need to/want to work from home.

susan said...

Welcome, magpie (and thanks for the comment here and on a few other posts! I'm in comment heaven this morning.)