Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What 8 months of winter do

It's 70 degrees and sunny. Although I barely remember what this is like, or who was president the last time it was this nice in New Haven, I knew enough to realize I should take advantage and try to begin the slow, arduous process of regaining color on my skin. Especially since I'll be in St. Thomas in two weeks, it's important to get a base, or something resembling one.

Today in one of my courses, Navigating Organizations, we discussed status, and how increases in status can come with consequences, such as not being challenged or exposed to new ideas. We watched a funny clip to illustrate the point, from "The Devil Wears Prada," a film I enjoy watching. Note the way Meryl Streep's character, Miranda, disregards common manners, chooses not to bother with mundane tasks (like hanging up her coat) and doesn't seek or consider opposing views. In the movie these things are played for our amusement, but they are also genuinely symptomatic of real-life increases in status.

In this same course, we recently did an activity called a leverage inventory, where we asked former co-workers and supervisors to complete a rather detailed survey about what types of "influence tactics" we tended to use at work. The questions asked for observations about behavior, as opposed to judgments about them, so the idea is to provide students with honest feedback about what they do and don't do, not whether that's good or bad. The behaviors fall into three categories:

1. Relationships (things like allocentrism, networks, team-building, coalitions)
2. Rhetoric (ethos, logos and pathos)
3. Meta-tools (strategies about strategies, like agency, intentionality and situation awareness)

We were then carefully categorized and rated against our peers. Of the 68 categories, my highest z-score (the one where I was most above the class average) was "Uses stories to help make my points," a sign of pathos. My lowest z-score was "Is able to tolerate conflict," which falls under "might." Both of these results make sense to me. I was a journalist, so I indeed like to tell stories. And I was a youngest child with two much older (and not particularly emotionally supportive) brothers, so it's very ingrained in me to do everything in my power to avoid conflict at all costs.

This limitation actually had consequences today. For the class I'm TA-ing this quarter, I ended up being in charge of helping groups of students reschedule their final activity if they had a conflict. I found myself caught between unhappy students and an unresponsive administrator. To avoid conflict, I politely waited for the administrator to say "go," as I kept increasingly impatient students in limbo, trying to appease them with jokes and reassurances that everything would be OK. Finally, with decision time upon us, I had to put my foot down and get answers, so I went over the administrator's head and resolved this issue, which had been brewing for almost a week, in 10 minutes. The moral: My desire to avoid conflict just made things worse, and if I had been mightier from the start, I would have saved myself a lot of headaches.

Sara Bareilles (who shares my birthday) has a beautiful bridge in a song (at 2:02 below) where she sings, "All my life I've tried to make everybody happy while I just hurt and hide, waiting for someone to tell me it's my turn to decide." That's a sentiment more symptomatic of a victim complex than I would like to attribute to myself, but I relate to the phenomenon where the more you try to please everyone, often the more pain you will endure. That's unsustainable, and thus ruins your ability to make everybody happy. So that balance between sternness and appeasement is critical.

So watch out for yourself, and go out and get some sun sometimes.

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