Tips from the NCFDD Monday Motivator: April 2022 edition

by Chava Nerenberg, Graduate Programming Assistant
Thursday, March 31, 2022 9:45 AM


Are you feeling like you just can't get anything done with everything that has been going on recently? Read on for an article from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD), an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community of over 71,000 graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members. 

To take advantage of this amazing resource (free for UCSB students!), you must register with your UCSB account (see how to register here). Once you register, you are automatically subscribed to the Monday Motivator -- your weekly dose of positive energy and actionable steps to increase your productivity and motivation. This week's Monday motivator focuses on strategies for time management.

Monday, March 28, 2022
Pick Your Battles

by Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD
Founder, NCFDD

Anthony Ocampo, PhD
Academic Director, NCFDD

There is a whole lot of negativity in the air lately! Our inboxes have been overflowing with messages from angry new faculty who are sick of departmental drama, tired of student hostility, and who are so filled with anger that they can’t focus on their research and writing. We are not sure if this pent-up anger is from unresolved conflicts that have been brewing all year or the result of cumulative devaluation in the workplace. Either way, it seems clear that we could use some straight talk about Common New Faculty Mistake #13: Avoiding Conflict. 

Conflict Is Inevitable 

Academia is full of intellectual, interpersonal, political, and downright petty conflicts. While many new faculty members feel comfortable with intellectual conflicts, they struggle to effectively resolve everyday conflicts. Their discomfort in resolving conflict extends across a wide spectrum and includes people who have more power (senior colleagues and administrators) and people who have less power (students) within their institution. We believe this results directly from the fact that we all received extensive training in the art of substantive argumentation as part of our graduate research training, but few of us ever learned how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in ways that don’t harm our relationships with others.

And, if you’re an underrepresented faculty member, the dynamics of racism and sexism mean that in addition to the common conflicts that new faculty members experience, you may also experience devaluation, disrespect, and daily aggression. Let us be perfectly clear; it's okay to feel angry when people behave badly (even if their behavior is unintentional). In our many years as faculty members, we were routinely asked to make copies by people who assumed we were the department secretaries, asked if we "really had a PhD" by students who couldn’t imagine people like us were professors. Each time these types of incidents occurred, we felt annoyed that we weren't getting the benefit of the doubt that our other colleagues received and angry that we lived in a world where our presence requires continual explanation. Anger, annoyance, and frustration are normal responses to persistent sexism and racism in the workplace. In fact, if you receive subtle daily reminders that you’re different and imply that you only belong in the ivory tower in a supporting role, it’s okay to feel mad about it.

The problem occurs when new faculty members (majority or minority) respond to conflicts in one of two extreme ways: 1) fighting every battle or 2) avoiding conflict altogether. The problem with fighting every battle is that you will quickly alienate yourself from everyone in your environment. The problem with avoiding conflict is that when you push anger down, it grows, deepens, and expands. This can put you at risk of publicly exploding when triggered by a minor incident, developing a stress-related illness, and/or sucking up so much of your energy that you have none left for your intellectual work.

That said, expressing anger is tricky because we live in a world where there are few socially acceptable forms of communicating anger in the workplace (this is especially true for underrepresented faculty). Any expression of anger tends to be interpreted through the frames of race and gender. Even the smallest expression of anger from my black male colleagues resulted in their being labeled as "threatening” or "unprofessional.” And for women, communicating frustration quickly got them labeled as "emotional," "out of control," and/or "a bitch." 

Healthy Conflict

Conflict in your professional life is inevitable, so it's critically important for all of us to learn when and how to express our feelings in ways that are effective and professionally appropriate. If you're underrepresented, you’re likely to have more conflict AND to have your responses interpreted through particular frames, so you have to be extra skilled at conflict resolution. The good news is that learning how to engage in healthy conflict will allow you to express your feelings, retain your integrity, and minimize negative consequences to your professional relationships. 

Here are the three questions we use when conflicts arise: 

  1. In this particular situation, should I push back or should I pull back?
  2. What will I gain, and what will I lose?
  3. If I decide to push back, what's the most effective way to do so?

There are no right or wrong answers here. Sometimes pushing back makes sense; other times it's better to pull back and then go hit the punching bag at the gym. Either way, anger is energy so it has to come out of your body. In other words, don't confuse "pulling back” with "stuffing down!” Pulling back simply means releasing the angry energy in an indirect way because the costs of expressing it outweigh the benefits.

For the times when we decide to push back, our best trick is to use Marshall Rosenberg’s formula

  1. State your observation of the problematic behavior.
  2. Describe how it makes you feel.
  3. Make your needs explicit.
  4. Clearly request what you want.

For example, when someone came to Professor Rockquemore's door and said, "Excuse me, I'm looking for Professor Rockquemore. Do you know where she is?" Despite her name on the door and the fact that she was the only person sitting in the room, the visitor must have had a synaptic misfire that disallowed these two pieces of data to result in the common-sense conclusion that she is Professor Rockquemore. This happened frequently, and most of the time she decided it wasn't worth pushing back. Typically, she pulled back, smiled, and said, "I'm Professor Rockquemore, what do you need?" But not that day! Kerry Ann was tired, cranky, and just sick of having to explain herself to others. She decided she had nothing to lose and much to gain by pushing back. She breathed deeply, paused, and asked herself: What is the most effective way to push back?

She chose to say: 

"When I'm the only person sitting in this office, and you ask me ‘Where is Professor Rockquemore?’ it makes me feel frustrated that you've looked at me and assumed I couldn't be that person. It also makes me feel angry that I live in a world where I have to keep explaining to people that I'm really a professor. Professors come in lots of different packages, so I just want to encourage you to rethink your assumptions about the type of people who fill that role. Now, how can I help you?"

This was a simple two-minute exchange, but we are sharing it to make the point that we can choose to push back or pull back on a case-by-case basis (as opposed to always pushing back or always pulling back as our default strategy). There are a wide variety of possible responses to any conflict and each response has a different set of costs and benefits associated with it. When we let off the steam in small increments, it doesn't build up or put us in danger of exploding. And, because we have memorized Rosenberg's mental framework, (when you _____, I feel ______, I need _____, and I want you to _____), we can quickly and easily express ourselves in a way that is honest, clear, professional, and opens the space for real communication and conflict resolution. 

The Weekly Challenge

This week we challenge you to do the following: 

  • Gently ask yourself: How do I manage conflict? Am I carrying around unresolved anger at people in my department? Am I in danger of exploding? Are there ways I could engage in conflict that would allow me to express myself more effectively?
  • Notice how you feel when conflict arises this week.
  • If you are an underrepresented faculty member, acknowledge that anger is a healthy response to persistent racial and gender inequality.
  • Imagine several different ways you could respond to conflicts that arise (by pushing back and/or pulling back).
  • Assess what you would gain and what you would lose by making different choices.
  • Try using compassionate communication in a low-level, low-risk conflict situation this week (but always in person and not over email!).
  • Write every day this week for at least 30 minutes! If you find yourself unable to write because you’re upset over an unresolved conflict, that’s a good indicator that it’s time to resolve it. 

We often hear the generic advice to "pick your battles." This week, we want to encourage you to fundamentally rethink the idea that we have to wait until conflicts reach the stage of "battle!" Instead, let's recognize that conflict is a normal outcome of people working together in an academic community. As a result, let’s begin to imagine ourselves as professionals who are comfortable, confident, and capable of resolving conflicts in our day-to-day lives.

We hope this week brings you the ability to assert yourself on a regular basis, the courage to express your feelings in ways that let off emotional steam incrementally, and the deep sense of empowerment that comes from engaging in healthy conflicts that strengthen (instead of weakening) our professional relationships.