Getting Past "Yes"

A message from former division president Brian L. Cutler, PhD.

By Brian L. Cutler, PhD

When I was President of the American Psychology-Law Society, which owns this impressive newsletter, I used my President’s column as a pulpit to share my musings associated with faculty mentoring – a responsibility that I have always taken seriously but have done questionably. The newsletter’s Editor, Dr. Matthew Huss, was obliged to publish those columns, so if you thought the columns were ridiculous and a waste of pdf space, it’s on me. This column, however, was unsolicited, and, if published, was done so at Dr. Huss’s discretion. So, if you recoil while reading this column, it’s on Dr. Huss. Continuing with the theme of unsolicitation, this column is about how to think about unsolicited opportunities, why you should often say yes, and how to occasionally get past yes and say no.

The unsolicited opportunities to which I refer include activities such as reviewing for journals and grant agencies and serving on university committees that are about as close to your professional interests as cleaning the gutters. It’s mid-September, perhaps the busiest time of year. You are launching your courses, helping new students, writing your AP-LS abstracts due at the end of the month, finishing the chapter and prospective journal article that you were supposed to complete during the summer, getting your kids settled in their school routines, and so on. Within two days you are invited to review a manuscript submitted to a peer- reviewed journal and a grant proposal, and your chair asks you to serve on committee to evaluate vendor presentations for the university’s food service contract. Your immediate reaction is you have no time for any of this $#%&. 

Let me briefly review the reasons why you should say yes and then get to the heart of my message, when and how to get past “yes” when it is in your best interest to do so. First, the party line reason for saying yes: reviewing is a professional responsibility. You will want your work competently reviewed, so you should competently review others’ work. This is a good enough reason to say yes, but we all know that reviewing is everyone’s responsibility, so it is reasonable to ask why you should do it at this time. If we value shared governance, committee work is everyone’s responsibility. Like the bystanders in the Kitty Genovese tragedy, why not diffuse your responsibility and let another capable colleague handle the work? Well, with respect to reviews of manuscript submissions and grant proposals, there are some direct and indirect personal benefits in these activities for you. Reviewing others’ work sharpens your research skills and will help you avoid pitfalls in your editing and writing. By doing good quality reviews you showcase your knowledge and skills to an editor – often a prominent scholar -- who might be in a position to refer you to others for productive research collaborations, publication opportunities, and prestigious editorial board appointments. The more people who know what you have to offer, the more opportunities may come your way. So why serve on the university committee? Well, you will learn some things about a new topic (that may not interest you but may help you in other walks of life or at least gives you valued insider knowledge that you can dispense in the right opportunity), and you will meet other university staff and make new connections. You might even make a new friend or even fall in love with the admissions officer similarly tasked with this ad hoc opportunity. Stranger things have happened. And in the end, most committee work doesn’t take too much time. We spend more time complaining about committee work than actually doing it. Notice that I did not say that this activity will positively impact your annual performance evaluation and merit increase. It won’t, but include it on your annual activity report anyway.

There are times in which you really should not say “yes.” Some of us have difficulty with the “n” word. Some of us just can’t resist the opportunity to be helpful to others, even at our own detriment. Some of us are afraid to offend even a stranger who lives on another continent. Some of us don’t know how to say “no” in a professional way. Let me try to help. You should say “no” when you really do not have the time to do the level of work required. A hastily constructed and superficial review of a manuscript or grant proposal will be of little help to the editor or review panel and may make matters worse. Your review might give an author the false impression that her work is better or worse than it actually is and cause her to feel that the editor or grant panel was misled or ignored the review, thus creating a sense of unfair treatment. Your fellow committee members will remember you as the team member who made more work for them. No one will know that in the period in which you performed this less than stellar work you were under the gun to complete your tenure file, recovering from surgery, or caring for an ill child, spouse or parent because you did not tell them, and they assume that when you accept a responsibility you will deliver. So if you do not have the ability to really do the work, let it go. Decline. Say “no”.

So, how do you let it go and get past “yes”? The first rule is to decline as soon as possible after you receive the request. If an editor asks for your review within 30 days and you decline in day 21, you have seriously slowed down the review process and risk losing the editor’s respect. Likewise, if you cancel on the day of the committee’s first meeting, you may have derailed a time- sensitive and important process, and you will not feel the love from your colleagues on the committee. When the opportunity arrives in your email box, give it a full assessment based on what is on your plate, and make a decision within a day: commit in full or decline. If you must decline, give a reason – a lesson right out of script theory. People expect a reason and will devote more thought (possibly resentment) to your (non) response if you violate the script. You don’t have to share personal details. It is fine to say you have some very pressing professional or personal obligations, or you can actually say what is occupying you, whatever makes you comfortable. If you have the time, offer help in another, less time-consuming way. For example, when declining an opportunity to review, provide a short list of other potential reviewers whom you know can do the work together and provide their email addresses. Suggest some other colleagues whom you know might be looking for university service opportunities or at least open to such considerations. These suggestions will be deeply appreciated. You can also commit to future assistance. A statement such as “by November my workload will ease up and I will be available for reviews” would be welcome and will keep you in good stead. And it’s always a good idea to thank people for thinking of you because, actually, you should be thankful that people think of you for opportunities. People make requests of you because they have a positive opinion of you and your abilities. Be grateful for that reputation, and don’t squander it by doing substandard work.

In sum, it is good to say “yes”. Your reputation, however, will not be hurt by occasionally declining an opportunity, particularly if you decline professionally, kindly, and quickly and offer helpful alternatives and commitments for future assistance.