Adventures in Leadership

I have newfound appreciation for anyone who has been in a leadership or administrative role for a significant amount of time.

They must have gonads made of steel… Because people are the freakin’ worst.

***

I hate people who want to meet in person without letting me know at least roughly what it is that they want to meet about. These people always want to manipulate me; they want to ask something of me that they know I would not normally want to give or do, which is why they don’t want to disclose the topic. They want to put me on the spot, catch me off guard, and force my hand into an action of their choosing, while making sure I don’t have the time to think it through and counting on my (and many other people’s) propensity to avoid direct confrontation.

I hate having my niceness, or the expectation of niceness on account of being female, exploited like this (by men and women). I am too busy to waste time on meetings that will result in me being someone’s pawn. Therefore, as of a few months ago, I have started refusing to meet. Very politely, I get back to the person, asking for clarification as to what the discussion is to be about and offering to talk on the phone or continue via email.

I recently made someone quite angry (actually, to quote, they were “disappointed”) by iterating over email that the in-person discussion they requested with only the vaguest and most opaque of hints as to the topic was  likely a discussion that would need to include some other people, too.  The person got more and more agitated and aggressive with each iteration, changing their hints as to what the topic of the conversation was supposed to be, and finally in a huff deciding that things were blown out of proportion and they did not want to meet with me any more. (I know this person fairly well, and I am willing to bet good money that what they wanted to discuss was to get me to do something they preferred even though I had said ‘no’ multiple times.)

*****

Along the same lines, I hate it when people say, “I prefer to meet in person, as email can be misunderstood. It doesn’t convey the body language etc. ”

This is bullshit. It always seems to be used by the people who totally meant to convey whatever passive aggressive/angry/irritated/otherwise negative crap they did, but since the recipient called them on it or actually got offended, they are now backpedaling and attributing it to email. It’s not email’s fault.

I dislike meeting in person precisely because of the body language. I have a short fuse and conveying that my veins are about to pop is not helpful. This insistence on  in-person communication always seems to be by the people who are confident in their ability to keep their cool, because they rightly believe they have the upper hand as they actually have all the pertinent information while the other party (me) does not and is thus in an inferior and precarious position.

I love email as a mode of communication because it helps me craft exactly the message I want to convey. Especially if an issue is sensitive, I can edit until I have achieved what I feel to be the right pitch. I can be nice, helpful, and funny; I can be formal or casual; I can be passive-aggressive or plainly aggressive… I can be who I want or need to be. I can respond, rather than react.

*****

Recently, I was put in a position of being yelled at by a higher admin; this was my first one-on-one conversation with this admin. Luckily, it was over the phone, and it solidified my conviction that sometimes not seeing the other person’s face is best. I was not told what the discussion was to be about, but I thought I knew based on some earlier information. It turned out the conversation was about something else, and I got yelled at for doing something I hadn’t done and for not having done what I had been supposed to in this person’s view, even though I had done precisely what I had been supposed to according to the job description. I pushed back fairly hard and the person backpedaled. Then another admin called me two weeks later to explain that the first one had been yelling not because of why he had been yelling (better not, because I hadn’t done anything wrong), but because of some other underlying stress and perceived grievance that dates years back and has nothing to do with me.

*****

A third person got all huffy because I pointed out that they hadn’t done a good job on something important and they needed to redo it. The person was all upset and told on me to the admin above (which prompted the aforementioned yelling); they said I was wasting their time (trust me, I wasn’t). This person is now redoing what they were supposed to and is going to miss the first deadline to turn it in. They are now upset with me anew. Why? Because I am not flexible and permissive enough to allow them to miss the deadline  (which would put everyone who needs to do the follow-up work in a terrible time crunch), but rather I told them to shoot for the next deadline that is only weeks away.

*****

Is it that people are a$$holes in general, or that interacting with a woman or me in particular makes them particularly a$$holish? If instead of me there were someone with more Y chromosomes in a position of some leadership, would people be less likely do double down and become aggressive when told that no, they cannot have what they think they are entitled to?

*****

I work hard and I believe I have a good sense of what is fair and just. I really dislike it when reasonable rules are bent and when other hard-working people are taken advantage of by those who think they are owed special treatment on account of nothing at all.

Where does a request for reasonable accommodation end and a high-maintenance primadonna status begin? When what you want puts undue burden on those around you, when it creates unnecessary work for them, when it messes up their lives. When you require ridiculous scheduling gymnastics from many people in order to accommodate your very special circumstances that are not special at all, as everyone else has them, you are just being an a$$hole about them.

*****

That colleague who said once that I didn’t have the right personality type for administration was correct. I don’t. I can’t deal with people. Many are self-serving and irrational, and it affects me profoundly. I lose work time; I vent to my husband (which is probably not helping his longevity); I clutter the blogosphere with screeds of fire and brimstone.

I also suffer from chronic self-doubt, probably inextricable from the impostor syndrome. Even when I rationally know that I did all that I could and that I am not wrong, somewhere deep inside there is this seed of doubt, making me wonder if I am at fault, if I am the reason that there is a conflict, that things are not smooth, that people around me seem unhappy. Unfortunately, insecure people are always vulnerable to manipulation. Luckily, my husband is my trusted voice or reason and reassurance.

It seems that the most effective admins are those who are somehow able to not take the $hit personally at all, while being able to be nice and smooth enough to make everyone feel like they are being heard and appreciated, and who then go do what they wanted to anyway. I don’t know if one can develop this tough hide or one is just naturally less emotional, with a  really cool temperament… But not getting ruffled by personal attacks in the context of the job seems to be critical for long-term leadership or admin success. My response to people giving me $hit is always, ” I soooo don’t need this. Why am I doing this? I have papers and grants to write.”

18 comments

  1. Ouch. Admin stuff sucks. Really good admins tolerate fools and a**holes lightly. Many people in academia are ill-suited to admin.

    The other thing about email is that it leaves a trail that one can go back to. Both as a reminder and as a record of what was said/promised. I know some colleagues who prefer to talk by phone/person because they don’t want a record of what was said/asked/promised.

    Also, with email, I can write something, let it stew for an hour or a day, and then read it over to see if it says what I meant. More often than not, I have found myself really thankful that I had a chance to correct the email rather than blurt it out, which is what I would have done in person.

    PS. On that body-language thing vs email note – something I really noticed the last time I was on an NIH study section that did both in-person and chat-room-style panel meetings. The chat-room-style panel meeting had none of the “stare-you-down-so-you-won’t-disagree-with-me” primate ethological body-language stuff (which was nice to skip). And also, a lot of people who didn’t speak up at the in-person meeting had a lot to say in the chat-room meeting, and a lot of what they had to say was very valuable.

  2. I have encountered two “leaders” who employed a very similar leadership style: they would only talk about touchy subjects one-on-one, and only in person or over the phone. In one case, this “leader” would use the one-on-one phone conversations to berate and intimidate individuals who were asking for reconsideration of a decision that the leader had made — I wasn’t prepared for it, so the first time this person called me up and yelled at me I was completely shocked. Seriously, I was shaking, and I cried after I hung up the phone. Then I found out that it was her (yes, her, surprisingly) MO, and that I was not being singled out, but rather that she makes a habit of doing this to anyone who dares to question her saintly judgment about any matter. In this case, several other members of the committee and I were chewed out about the same issue, but we decided to take the lemonades and made lemons, so we went rogue and acted independently of the committee and the resulting workshop is one of my proudest professional accomplishments so far.

    My current department chair also prefers to solve touchy issues by sending cryptic emails requesting a face-to-face meeting (no topic given), and then talking one-on-one with each of the other faculty (this is possible because our department has only four tenure-track faculty and one research faculty member), and then claiming that he has “found the only solution” without ever having everyone sit down in the same room to discuss it. I find this completely maddening, because often when I talk to the other faculty after the fact it seems that there are in fact multiple solutions to the problem, some of which might be preferable to the solution handed down from on high, but then our chair is completely unreceptive to discussing any of those other solutions. Thankfully he is only chair until the end of this academic year. I like him in many ways, especially when he is not acting as chair, but I am looking forward to a change of leadership and particularly to a change in how touchy issues are handled.

    I try to observe these communication styles and make note of what NOT to do when I am (hopefully someday) in a leadership position.

  3. You prefer communicating via email (as do I), because you are an excellent clear persuasive writer. As far as getting used to administrative conflict and not letting it ruffle you, yes, it is a learned skill, and practice makes perfect. I used to be extremely hot-headed. Now there is essentially nothing anyone can say to me in the academic context that raises my blood pressure.

  4. I always assumed the insistence on face-to-face meetings was so that there wouldn’t be a paper trail. But the opposite: admins who are extremely confrontation-averse and don’t answer your emails or your requests for ftf meetings? Those are the worst.

  5. I don’t think this has much to do with gender—I get the same sort of “we need to do it face-to-face” BS from those who want to have their own way without rational debate. When I do get forced into a face-to-face discussion, I immediately summarize it in an email, having discovered (the hard way) that the assholes who demand the face-to-face meeting misremember what as discussed and agreed on at the meeting—always in their favor, of course.

    There are times when in-person meetings are better—for brainstorming different ideas, for example. But for reaching rational decisions, email seems to work much better.

  6. Thank you for this post. After two recent administrative-y stints, I started to think i might be kind of good at it, maybe should pursue more. But I don’t have a poker face, get upset easily, take shit personally, intimidated by trustees, etc. Doing administrative-y stuff costs too much, emotionally. I would love to know more from ComradePhysioProffe about how you transformed from a hothead to a cool one.

    My experience with the can-we-meet crowd is: they want to re-litigate something solved years or days earlier, without the pressure of defending their position in a group. Or, worse, they are those people who need meetings because meetings make them feel important. It’s amazing how often, asked to identify the purpose/agenda there….isn’t one.

  7. Interesting perspectives. I guess I’m just starting out but sometimes I am relieved to be meeting in person because I have felt that I am sometimes misunderstood in writing. That is my “tone” is taken as negative when that wasn’t my intention (or I’m afraid it will be). In person I feel like if Something is taken as more negative than I intended, I can immediately sense that and assuage/correct the miscommunication. Possibly based on your posts and other comments this is because I need work on my written communication skills? I’m not sure why or if that makes me intentionally manipulative… just a work in progress?

    Anyway it’s useful to see the perspective from the other side. I certainly wouldn’t want others to feel I’m trying to “manipulate” them.

  8. Jojo, I don’t believe I said all people who want face-to-face meetings are manipulative, but only those who are very evasive or secretive about why we are meeting in the first place. Of course I meet with people in person, there are many legitimate nonmanipulative reasons to do so. But the key is whether the person requesting a meeting, even though the details may not be shareable via email, wants to give me enough information to prepare, or if they deliberately want to leave me in the dark or even unseated in order to ensure I arrive anxious and/or uninformed into the meeting, thereby ensuring that there is a power differential in their favor.

    Examples [me with a normal person (NP) and with a manipulative a$$shole (MA)]:

    Example 1:
    NP1: Hi Xyk, I wondered if you’d have time to meet for coffee next week. The discussion about issue XX in the last department meeting got heated and I wanted to follow up with you. I’m not sure I really understood your side of the argument.

    Example 2:
    NP2: Hi Xyk, could we meet in person to discuss the outline of the proposal? It’s probably faster to meet for an hour than to iterate over email. How’s the week after next? If you could think about XX in particular, that would be very helpful.

    Example 3:
    MA: Hi Xyk, I wonder if you have time to meet with me in person next week.
    Xyk: Sure. Could you tell me what this is about?
    MA: (Option 1) I think it’s best not to discuss it via email. (Seriously? Are we CIA spies? What the heck do you want to discuss that you can’t even give me a hint? This option is intended to have me completely blindsided.)
    MA: (Option 2) I have concerns about how you run committee XX, but it’s best to continue the discussion in person. (This is meant to leave me nearly entirely without information, but with the added bonus that it’s worded as a thinly veiled accusation of incompetence, so it is guaranteed to leave me off balance coming into the meeting, wondering about what I did wrong and becoming anxious).
    Xyk: (trying to do this more often in the future)I don’t think I can meet without a little more information as to what exactly this is about. It’s not a good use of my time to attend in-person meetings without a clear understanding of what will be discussed and to what end.

  9. Yeah I do get from everyone’s examples that some people can abuse face to face communication for a variety of dishonest reasons. But I guess some of the comments and replies didn’t seem to leave room for any legit reason at all to meet face to face.

    So far, I’m more comfortable talking about sensitive stuff in person because I feel I do better at making myself understood in person. Based on this post others don’t feel the same which is fine, and it’s good for me to try to be aware of that. Like I said I’m sure I should work on being better at communicating in writing as well.

  10. @jojo, I guess a lot depends on what you mean by “sensitive”. A reprimand is often best delivered quietly one-on-one with no record, but a commendation should be public. Requests for exceptions to policy should be on the record, not backroom deals with no paper trail.

    Unfortunately, many of the requests for private meetings are attempts to either coerce me into making a bad decision or trying to get a secret exception to policy. Occasionally they are attempts to reprimand me.

    As with xykademiqz, I have no trouble meeting one-on-one with someone who tells me ahead of time what the agenda is (“I want to get the following graduation requirement waived”, “I need advice about how to handle a personal emergency”, “We need to go over the curriculum-leave plan to make sure we can cover all the courses next year”, …). I have trouble with the “I need to talk with you” people with no further agenda, or with an agenda so vague that I’m likely to completely misunderstand their point.

  11. My last dept chair was a huge jerk over email but super nice on the phone or in person very bizarre.

    We have been foiad before, so the paper trail is a nontrivial thing.

  12. This post hits close to things I’ve been thinking about as well. In this new career of being a teacher, one thing I wasn’t prepared for was how many different people I would be interacting with (students, teachers, admin, staff, parents, etc.), and how many of those interactions are negative.

    “I don’t know if one can develop this tough hide or one is just naturally less emotional, with a really cool temperament…”

    I hope it’s the former, because I’m definitely NOT the latter, but need these skills to stay in this career.

  13. To be an effective administrator you have to recognize that you have to be an anthropologist and really study the people you are trying to work with. To be effective you have to understand precisely each person’s level of social skills and heirarchy within the group, which is usually at odds with their official job title. There are always ringleaders and you have to get their agreement before rolling out any official admin actions or there will be trouble. To get this agreement you need to do one-on-one meetings or at least phone calls so you can convince the person that it is in their interests to help you, and so they can set out and negotiate their terms for doing so – email will not work at all for this purpose because it’s a record of official business.

    People care mostly about 1) losing/keeping “face”, 2) about pleasing their own higher-ups, 3) about their own access to resources, and lastly, 4) about their pet projects. If you can’t offer any of these 4 things to people, they will refuse to do anything for you, but if you can give them some of these things you can get them to agree to many things.

    Also – do not expect much maturity or reasonableness from most faculty. Most of them are going to behave like they’re still in middle school. They do not have standard get-along-with-others business office skills because in most cases they have never worked in such a setting. When encountering middle school behavior, I find it helps to use my “mom” skills and just be more obviously mature and patient than they are, to stop talking to them/go around them and work with others instead, and/or to stop directly talking with them and to interact with them only through an intermediator (such as a secretary). Most will respond by trying to act nicer and contacting you again. A few will never come around and you might as well ignore them thereafter…

    Just my $0.02…..

  14. “Also – do not expect much maturity or reasonableness from most faculty. Most of them are going to behave like they’re still in middle school. They do not have standard get-along-with-others business office skills because in most cases they have never worked in such a setting.”

    +1

  15. Admins who stop talking to faculty who don’t toe their line are part of the problem. That’s middle school behavior. Chairs and deans can get away with it because they have more power. It doesn’t make it right.

    I’ve been the intermediary between faculty and an upper admin, who gives the cold shoulder to anyone who doesn’t do what he wants them to do. It’s abusive.

  16. I love the idea that business offices and dealing with middle management in large corporations is not also a den of middle school iniquity. (Hasn’t anyone seen The Office?) Administration in any large corporation is going to be relatively similar (to a first approximation). And a modern university is nothing if not a large corporation.

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