Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The yes-no game

Posted by Jean Adams

I try hard to be a ‘yes’ person. Not a yes-(wo)man - I like to think I’m fairly critical and independent minded. But the sort of person who will be helpful and enthusiastic and say ‘yes’ when I can. I am, after all, pretty off the scale in conscientiousness and tend to think that yes is inherently a good thing.

This is in contrast to the ‘no’ people: the lazy, unhelpful people who can be relied upon only to say ‘no’. Or at least nothing much until you’ve given up hope and asked someone else.

The yes-no game
Public health is a collaborative science. It is probably still possible to while away a career in epidemiology without speaking to many people – especially if you have a big cohort study, or other data set, nestled up your sleeve. But once you get into the realm of developing and evaluating public health interventions, or even just collecting another round of data from your cohort study, you start to need big teams of people with varied expertise – a systematic reviewer, a statistician, a health economist, a qualitative researcher (goodness me I sometimes wish I was did one of those tangible things that people could give a name to). The effect is that there are all sorts of people asking you to say yes to taking part in this and that.

University research departments are also supposed to be pretty collaborative places – more than just the sum of their parts, but interactive groups of people getting stuff done together. There’s teaching, and supervision, and tutoring, and marking to be done; committees to contribute to; strategy to be developed and executed; a website to be maintained; a Christmas party to be organised. A whole lot more things that you are asked to say yes to.

At the same time, I have all of ‘my’ stuff to do: projects that are supposed to be finished sometime around when the funding expires; papers to write for my REF return, and those I just want to write; new grant applications to develop; ideas for blog posts to dream up.

Faced with so many requests to say yes, is pretty easy to develop a no mentality. In fact, not so long ago, my partner and I decided that the only way we were going to free our weekends from the tyranny of work was to get a lot more strict with our yes’s and a lot more liberal with our no’s. There was going to be a daily fess up about yes’s and communal pats on the back for each and every no. No was going to be the new black.

It didn’t take long before we worked out that this wasn’t going to work. Partly because it turned out we couldn’t remember all the yes’s and no’s we’d said by the end of the day, or even to remember to talk about them; but mostly because it turned out that each yes and no needed to be qualified.

There were the things we really wanted to say yes to, but couldn’t because of all the other previous yes’s. And the stuff that we wanted to say no to but said yes because of the possible fall-out of saying no to particular people. Fairly quickly we’d worked out a 2x2 table of: what you said x what you should’ve said if you only did the stuff you wanted to do.

We abandoned the scheme before it deteriorated into unknown knowns.

The problem is that I want everyone else to say yes to my things, but to be able to say no to just about everyone else’s. And so does everyone else.

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