Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Negotiating relationships with colleagues

One of the things I apparently still have to learn is how to interact successfully with some of my colleagues. Specifically, how do I handle situations where there is even the slightest hint of conflict?

Now, I'm by no means a confrontational person, but if I disagree with someone or if I have to be the bearer of not-so-pleasant news, I will do so---as politely as I can. (I don't always succeed at the politeness thing, but I try very hard.) The problem I'm dealing with is that my colleagues will avoid any hint of confrontation like the plague. They like to think that we'll always all agree and be happy and "collegial", and if that's not the case then there must be something dreadfully wrong. I have no idea where this comes from, but it sure does make life "interesting".

In the most recent scenario, a colleague asked for my opinion, and then went bizarrely ballistic after I gave him my (completely objective) opinion on the matter. Apparently, he expected me to answer one way (to agree with him), and when I didn't he reacted very poorly--and, to be honest, very immaturely. And this was a really low-stakes thing, and he reacted way out of proportion to my answer. But this is not the first time this has happened: with many of my colleagues, disagreement = personal disapproval and criticism. (To which I can only say, "huh?")

I wish I could understand what it is about my colleagues that make them feel this way. I wish I could convince them that when I disagree with them, it's definitely not a personal thing---that disagreement is healthy and normal. I wish that I didn't feel like I had to bite my tongue and measure my words every time I open my mouth, lest I offend yet another one of my colleagues.

This whole collegiality thing is going to be the death of me!


FemaleCSGradStudent said...

I am also trying to figure this out. For example, what is the proper way to address the kind of immature behaviour that you describe.

I've lost some colleagues as friends. We will have a similar disagreement as you described. Then they'll thing, "Aww, she's really pissed at me," when I never think another thing of it.

I see guys engage in these kinds of disagreements, but remain friends afterwards? Is it that my peers do not expect me, as a woman, to disagree? Am I supposed to be nice?

For now, my approach is to treat the badly behaving colleagues like I would treat a puppy. Metaphorically, I will hit them on the nose with a newspaper and say, "No!" Exactly how to implement that metaphor is my next research challenge.

Keep writing. Reading your blog is something like looking into a crystal ball into my own life. I'm glad to have found something of a female mentor in the blogosphere.

jo(e) said...

I see this kind of behavior all the time too. It drives me crazy. It seems especially bizarre in the academic world. Aren't we supposed to be offering all kinds of opinions and such? I work with a whole lot of non-confrontational people though, and often when disagreements happen, people just go silent and stop talking to each other. It's frustrating.

Jane said...

Thanks for the kind words, FCSGS! I think you are absolutely correct that this may be gendered---when we disagree with a male colleague, we're not playing out our expected role of "nice girl", and they just don't know how to react to that. If you ever figure out how to translate the "bad puppy" metaphor to actual action that works, please let me know!

jo(e), it's strangely comforting to hear that this weirdness goes on elsewhere and in other fields. Have you found any strategies that work for you when dealing with people like this?

OutofHigherEd said...

From my experience in the academy, most profs conflate their personal opinions with their intellectual indentity.

Thus, the role of students and other profs, especially junior ones, is to agree with the opinions of their seniors and reinforce their view of themselves as intellectuals.

So, what Jane did, was not simply give an opinion when asked, but directly the challenged the intellectual status of her colleague!

Academic culture ultimately proved far to theraputic for me.

~profgrrrrl~ said...

I've seen this happen before, although in my case I've not experienced it directly. (Am thankful for my colleagues each and every day -- reasonable people who are okay with agreeing to disagree on things and who enjoy engaging in the discussion.)

Makes me wonder how these people teach, deal with students who introduce different points of view, etc.

Jane said...

OoHE, that's an interesting angle---the person I disagreed with was definitely more senior than me. Hmmm.

PG, I do wonder that myself. Although here's another theory: since my field is inherently objective (or so we like to think), I wonder if my colleagues just aren't used to being challenged? because they deal with "facts", typically, and so when they venture into the realm of "opinions" they tend to forget that they're not in the factual realm anymore, and still try to see things as black and white, right and wrong? That may be a stretch, but there might be some truth in there....

Lossy said...

Is it that they don't like to take criticism from a woman? Whether they are meant as criticism/blunt comments/polite comments, maybe it still comes off like the men don't appreciate such comments from a woman?

Or do they react the same way when it's a man-man discussion/criticism?

oonagh said...

I have experienced very similar reactions, and only from men. I'm quite small, and people usually consider me "sweet", but I'm not good at concealing my opinion if I disagree with somebody, especially not when they explicitly ask for it. I had guys reacting quite hysteric when I didn't even think I had said anything offensive. It doesn't happen all the time, but often enough to make me wonder. I have talked about it with other people, asked them if what I had said or written really was offensive, but nobody thought so.

Or where they just being nice to me...?

Jim Online said...

Having friends is something that requires a lot from us. Although people interact once in a while, having a sound relationship is easier said than done. In fact, it necessitates a lot of changes in behavior. However, a relationship is as valuable as to the manner that we do it. In any way, achieving perfect communication will always be a tough task.

Unsane said...

If they're male, ask them if they have PMS: "Because, some of my friends have had this, and I can just imagine what it might be like!"