TITLE: A Lesson Learned
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: May 16, 2006 4:28 PM
It's been so long since I wrote regularly here that
I am starting to feel a sense of withdrawal. Rather
than try to tackle a larger essay today, I'm going to
ease my way back in with one small lesson I have learned
this year while trying to be an effective department
When I was a teenager, I read a science-fiction story
about a man from Earth who traveled to a distant planet
populated by folks who were mostly like us. They
differed in one substantial way: they took on the
emotions of those around them. When the Earth traveler
was happy, so were the alien folks with whom he lived.
When he was in a foul mood, they were, too. When he
was sad, they, too became sad. The protagonist fell
in love but ultimately had to leave the planet, because
he could not bear to inflict his own moodiness and
depressions on his lover, who seemed to suffer so much
more than he did.
No, I haven't developed supernatural empathic abilities,
but I did learn the value of not being too sensitive.
It's not good for my health, and surprisingly not good
for those around me.
The part about my health is pretty straightforward.
In an administrative position, there are lots of people
who depend on one's performance and who can become
unhappy with results. Teachers always face this,
through their students, but students are a remarkably
resilient bunch. They are perhaps more used to not
being in control of their worlds and so are less
likely to cause a fuss when things don't go perfectly.
Faculty and other administrators aren't always so
happy-go-lucky. Don't get me wrong; it's not that
faculty and administrators are more likely to complain.
It's just that they depend on other folks in order to
get their own work done and so are more sensitive to
conditions that differ from expected. And they are
more likely to be direct in their comments.
Over a decade of participating in the
software patterns community
format, I've increasingly come to appreciate the value
of providing positive and constructive feedback in a
supportive way. I've been fortunate this year to have
several colleagues who were willing to give me feedback
about my performance that I need in order to get better.
But a blunt listing of "here are things that haven't
gone as well as we had hoped" can be quite a downer.
It's easy to tell oneself not to be too sensitive; it's
a much taller order not to be too sensitive. The ethos
of writers' workshops is one of shared commitment to
growth and so creates as supportive framework as possible
in which to deliver suggestions.
Luckily, I think I've avoided being defensive in the
face of criticisms -- most of which are accurate, and
the rest of which are at least understandable from the
perspective of the speaker -- but that doesn't make
the sound of them any less of a drag on the psyche.
How does oversensitivity affect others? First of all,
folks who are feeling down are less likely to do really
good work for the team. Until my mood bounces back,
I feel like a substandard performer. Second, oversensitivity
creates a reluctance to open up so easily, which makes
the person a less effective collaborator. I think I've
been lucky to avoid this pitfall so far this year, but
it requires conscious effort.
I hope that I am able to fold this lesson back into how
I give feedback to my colleagues and in the classroom.
Constructive suggestions are more likely to help the
hearer if they arrive in a supportive package.
P.S. If you have any idea of the name or author of the
story I described above, please
drop me a note.)